$400 billion. Yes, billion with a “b.” That’s how much poor writing costs American businesses every year. From text messages and emails to notes and jargon-filled reports, you and your employees probably spend more than half of your working day writing.
And, you learned to write through formal education that taught you how to use words to express complete thoughts, but your instructors may have failed to effectively teach you to write for others and build their trust. Writing for others is essential for establishing your credibility and getting those others to trust you.
You know your own intentions and goals when it comes to content you’ve written — but others don’t. And there are both internal and external instances in which establishing and maintaining trust is important.
Imagine writing an email to your boss but misspelling a word: “The fright cost will be $142.66.” The difference between “freight” and “fright” is one letter. While your boss will probably figure out what you meant, they might also wonder whether the decimal point is in the right place and write you back, “Did you mean $1,426.60?” Or consider a sales letter chock-full of typos. Beyond being unimpressive, this example could be costly in terms of a lost lead. One error creates a lack of credibility, which can lead others to look for additional mistakes in your work because your written communication fails to build trust.
“To be credible in writing, stay focused on the reader and how they will receive your message more than what you are trying to say.”– Jenny Morse, Appendance, Inc.
This is the central need of our professional writing: to establish trust with others. Credibility is especially fragile in our first few engagements with people: any error, no matter how small, can create distrust. People who don’t know you look for signs in your writing that you are trustworthy.
Here are the top 5 things you can do to establish trust with your audience.
- Spell their name correctly. Our names are our identities. Misspelling one’s name is an immediate signal that the writer doesn’t care about the reader. Look for cues about what your audience likes to be called, use that name and spell it correctly.
- Use a greeting word or phrase to start an email. Do not start with just their name. Do you usually start a conversation with someone by just saying their name? We use greetings when we are being friendly and putting people at ease: “Hi, Jim!” or “Good morning, Judy!” Most people feel better about messages that start with a greeting.
- Don’t start your message with “I.” “I” itself is not a bad word, but too often we start with “I am writing you because” or “I am emailing you because.” The reader sees “I am writing you” and thinks yes, you are. These phrases are about what “I” am thinking and have nothing to do with why I am communicating to you. Start with information and words that are useful to your audience: “Here is the report you requested” or “When is the next board of directors meeting?”
- Use white space. Giant blocks of text are not useful to anyone. Use short paragraphs with white space between them. Your reader isn’t cozying up with your email and reading every word. Your reader is trying to figure out what you want and what they should do next. They are looking for key details. Using white space makes it easier for them to find information.
- Wait at least 15 minutes after writing your message to proofread it. You cannot physically see what you have written within 15 minutes because of how the brain processes visual information. You will only see what you think you wrote. To be sure your message is correct, you must be patient. Get into the habit of writing a draft and saving it while you make a phone call or refill your coffee. Then proof it again before you send it. Using this tip can significantly improve the effectiveness of your messages.
When you start focusing on your reader’s needs, you send signals that you care about them — that is what ultimately builds trust.
About the Author:
Jenny Morse, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of Appendance, a Colorado-based company that provides business writing consulting. Appendance’s new online course, Better Business Writing, teaches participants the tools to establish credibility and write more effectively in business contexts.