How to Write For the Way Your Coworkers Actually Read

Steal these data-backed marketing tricks of the trade to improve your memos, emails, messages, and more.

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Illustration by Vicente Niro

How many times have you had a coworker ask you a question you’d already answered in an email?

It’s easy to blame it on sheer laziness, but the truth is your teammates are drowning in information. Between the barrage of messenger pings, document updates, and text messages — not to mention the mind-boggling average of 121 emails a day — the average knowledge worker is just trying to keep their head above water. If they took the time to read every word they’re sent, they’d never get anything done.

Luckily, there are people in the world whose job is to write words that grab people’s already overloaded attention. Those people spend mountains of time and money on research to understand how people process words online — and, better yet, what makes people stop mid-scroll and take action. They don’t just write words, they design them based on data.

Those people are called marketers. And you can steal their hard-won secrets to improve your own memos, emails, messages, reports, and more.

We’ve distilled those mountains of marketing research into proven tips — with real-life examples — that will help you write words your teammates actually read. Applying these techniques will help your coworkers scan for meaning, do a deep dive on what’s most relevant to them, and take action so your team can get work done.

Begin with the end in mind

Pro writers who work on apps and websites know that an intuitive interface often comes down to designing a digital experience backward. Amazon uses this approach, starting new initiatives by writing an imaginary pitch of the final product to the customers. If it doesn’t seem clear to people outside the team or doesn’t sound interesting or exciting, Amazon designers scrap the idea and try again.

So how does that apply to writing a business email? By beginning with your end goal in mind, you can actually figure out what to include and, more importantly, what not to include. (More on that later.) Start by asking yourself these questions about your readers:

User experience designers ask: What is the problem we are solving? Who are our users? What are these users trying to do? How could this design fail? What’s the simpler version? Is there anything we can remove? What assumptions are we making? How will we define success? But business communication writers ask: What problem am I trying to solve? Who is my audience? What are their needs? How could this communication fail? How can I make this message simpler? What can I delete? Am I making assumptions? What is success?
User experience writers ask themselves these questions before ever picking up a pencil to design a new app, webpage, or message.

Front-load the important stuff

Research shows that most people leave websites in the first 10 seconds. We’re hoping that your teammates don’t have the same bail rate, but it’s still essential to get to the point.

To solve the problem, professional marketing writers borrow a technique from journalism called the inverted pyramid. That means the most critical information in news stories goes at the top, while the rest follows in descending order of importance.

Inverted pyramid news writing. The top of the pyramid has must-have information, the middle has additional useful context, and the tip has minor, nice to know details. Critical information must go at the beginning because they could stop reading at any time.
Ask yourself, “If my teammates only read the first three sentences of this email/memo/report, what do they need to know?”

Organizing articles and product interfaces in this way allows readers to get the most crucial details quickly and makes it easier for editors to cut words from the bottom if they’re running out of space. (That will become important in the Say Less section below.)

Sharing results of a campaign? Give an executive summary right at the top. Trying to set up a meeting? Skip the intro paragraph and share your time poll.

Make your call to action prominent and clear

According to studies that track eye movements, people spend the most time on headlines and the first brightly colored button of a website.

That’s why marketing writers typically only include a single call to action (CTA) on a webpage. They often even go a step further, drawing extra attention by placing that CTA on its own line (rather than buried in a paragraph) and using bold or a button to make it stand out even more.

When you’re trying to get a point across or make a request — like asking a coworker to submit a sales report — make sure that request stands out visually. You may not be including a brightly colored button in your emails, but you can make it even easier on your coworkers by having a single, clearly stated CTA in each message, instead of a laundry list of asks that could get lost in the shuffle. Make it easy to pick out by bolding it and placing it on it’s own line instead of burying it in a bigger paragraph. Leave no doubt in your coworkers’ minds as to what you need them to do.

Instead of having an email with a Subject: "Numbers." And then a message with "Alex, Need your sales numbers ASAP. Ed" It's a better idea to write a message with a thread subject: "Sales numbers for monthly reporting." The thread has a message, "Hi Alex, I’m putting together the monthly sales report and I’d like to show off your awesome wins this month! Please provide your numbers by the end of day Wednesday, February 24th. As a reminder, we’re all reporting the below in this tracking document: 1. Total revenue Deals won vs. lost 2. Deals won vs. goal 3. Sales cycle length. Thank you so much, Ed"
Instead of having vague, alarming requests, put everything you need in writing and make the call to action — in this case, a report by Wednesday — the most prominent part of your message.

Pro tip: Include everything your teammates need to get the job done, like links to relevant documents and due dates. Yes, even if they already have access and you’ve talked about deadlines before. Make doing whatever it is you need them to do as easy and obvious as possible.

Say less

Once you have your CTA written right at the top, take a cue from the iconic user experience book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug. He argues that the more tools make people think, the less likely they are to actually use the tool.

Krug’s leading solution is simple: Concision. “Get rid of half the words on each page, then get rid of half of what’s left,” writes Krug.

Studies show that people read only 20% of the words they encounter on a given webpage — and if they’re reading on mobile, it’s even less. So distill what you need into as few words as possible. Then get rid of everything else.

Instead of long, rambling emails that provide a lot of context right away, like this:

An email with the subject line "Committee for consideration" plus four paragraphs of very long text about why a committee is important to the school. The pointers the author of this article gives are: 1. The message has a vague subject line that makes the email easy to ignore. 2. There is too much context at the top of the email making it too long. 3. The crux of the email is hidden at the end.

Try editing down the crux, placing it at the top of your message, and providing any necessary context as briefly as possible near the end. Here’s what it looks like in our team’s messaging app Twist:

It's a good idea to edit that previous long email into a new one with a clear, concise thread title like "Committee for new school schedule." The text has been edited down quite a lot with a short, to-the-point initial paragraph and brief context with links to longer discussion elsewhere near the end.

Make it skimmable

Did you know that people read in an F-pattern on computers? That means they start reading the top line and read less and less as they continue down the page, sticking primarily to a text’s left side.

It turns out that all of us are skimming when we read digitally. That’s why professional writers use headings and subheadings for any writing that needs to be a bit longer — like help center articles, about pages, or getting started instructions. These eye-catching, left-oriented headers help orient readers and direct them to the information they need fast.

Here’s how you can do the same:

  • Structure your writing with headings and subheadings, which also helps your coworkers who use screenreaders.
  • Use meaningful titles that tell readers precisely what the section is about, rather than clever or vague ones.
  • Use descriptive hyperlinks and emphasis (sparingly) so that important words and phrases catch your reader’s eye.

Take the following example. With random bolding, unorganized lists, and a mixture of information, it’s hard to skim the email below to get the main point.

This email example features random, non-skimmable bolding, different-length bullet points, and a confusing mix of dates and notes.

Instead, it’s a good idea to create bullet points of the same length, broken out into skimmable sections, nested under descriptive headlines. As you can see below, Twist makes it easy to include this kind of formatting.

This thread example features an orienting thread title, "Kickoff: New Composer Sprint" plus useful, skimmable headers like "dates and deadlines" and "important documents." It also has standardized bullet points and links to additional information.

Pro tip: Hyperlinked text draws people’s attention. Instead of linking vague text like “click here,” give important links descriptive titles that make it even easier for skimming coworkers to take action.

Chunk information for retention

Got the big picture down and edited? Take a cue from writing for accessibility and format your big ideas into scannable chunks.

The human brain has limited short-term memory. The average brain holds seven information chunks at a time, which fade from memory in 20 seconds. By breaking content into small units of information (chunking), professional content writers make it easier for users to find and remember important ideas.

You can do the same by:

  • Using clear information hierarchies (see the section on headers and subheaders above)
  • Grouping related items together
  • Keeping paragraphs short (~1-3 sentences)
  • Adding white space in between information chunks
On one side there is a large paragraph of text and the other is a chunked bit of text. Side one states: "George Miller, an important figure in the field of cognitive psychology, discussed chunking in an article, "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," published in The Psychological Review. In his research, he found that most people can identify five or six pitches of sound before becoming confused. Then he studied memory span, sharing that the longest list of items that a person can repeat back in the correct order is seven items. However, those items can be very different amounts of information — a binary digit, decimal digit, and words all can count as these items, which he terms chunks." The other side, which we think is better, says, "Studies show that most people can remember seven chunks of information at once. Research Cognitive psychologist George Miller found that: * Most people can identify five or six pitches of sound before becoming confused. * The longest list people can repeat back in the correct order is seven items. * Items can refer to a single digit or a word — what he termed “chunks” of information. Source "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information," published in The Psychological Review
Break large paragraphs into smaller, easier-to-remember chunks of information. There’s a bonus if the main point is right at the beginning — instead of five lines down in the paragraph.

Write in plain language

Research shows that accessible design is good for everyone — even people without disabilities. Auto-complete, initially made for people with low dexterity, is now widely used by all. Voice control, implemented for users with disabilities, is convenient for millions. And contrast and color guidelines, created to help people with low vision, help us all see in bright light.

The same is true for writing. Sure, your teammates are smart folks with above average reading levels, but they’re also busy. They don’t have time to parse complicated language and sentence structure.

Professional writers do a few things to simplify their writing and make it more readable for everyone:

  • Use short sentences. Lengthy or convoluted phrases strain short-term memory.
  • Write in the active voice to make it clear who is taking the action.
  • Aim for an 8th-grade reading level, the ability of the average American.

Writing for business is best without flowery metaphors and adjective-filled prose, which can get confusing quickly. Not to mention jargon, acronyms, and made-up words and phrases.

In this example, Becky asks, "Just for clarity, when we say PMs are we talking about product managers, product marketers, or project managers?" Then Hugo responds, "In my book PM = Product Managers, but I know definitions can vary." Then Neil writes, "Ah, I thought you meant PM as in project managers as the first segment to target. Why do you think product managers would be preferable to project managers?"
Be careful with acronyms — they can mean different things to different people.

It’s even more important to be clear and consistent with a global team, especially if not everyone speaks the same language natively. So mirror language when you see it — or help teammates clarify so you’re all on the same page. There’s no need to say “apply pressure to the right side of your mouse” when “right-click” would do.

Pro tip: Hit the right tone by using supportive, reassuring language to help a coworker learn a complex tool or to-the-point communication when taking responsibility for a missed deadline. And remember, sarcasm and irony easily get missed even in person, so it’s best to put clarity before personality.

There are two iPhones in this image. The first has the beginning of Apple's message to customers that begins, "The United States government has demanded that Apple take an unprecedented step which threatens the security of our customers. We oppose this order, which has implications far beyond the legal case at hand. This moment calls for public discussion, and we want our customers and people around the country to understand what is at stake." The other iPhone has a note entitled "Why this is good:" and the following bullet points: "* The message starts with the main argument. * It uses short, understandable sentences. * Clear analogies simplify complicated tech concepts. * “We,” and “our” makes explicit who is speaking."
Apple used unambiguous, straightforward language to explain its stance on a complex issue about privacy and encryption. This helped readers understand the topic and form their own opinions.

Say 1,000 words, visually

Writers are often told to show, rather than tell. That usually means written descriptions (The clack of the typewriter filled the air as the writer furrowed their brow versus The writer was writing.).

But content creators take this idiom a step further to literally show what they’re talking about. A recent study found that 41% of users watched product videos on e-commerce websites. For these users, that visual content helped them imagine the product in their lives. However, not any video will do. Getting to the point in 30 seconds or less and keeping a slow pace for complicated processes are immensely important for any instructional recording.

Doist designers rely heavily on Loom, a platform that lets you record yourself and your screen simultaneously. It helps them asynchronously communicate without resorting to long walls of text. It’s an incredible tool you can use to:

  • Record all types of presentations, from a math class to a business report
  • Provide step-by-step instructions, like onboarding a new digital tool
  • Offer feedback on specific parts of a product design

“I like recording Loom videos to walk through complicated design concepts that a static mockup wouldn’t communicate clearly enough,” says Doist Designer Stephen Barkan. “It lets me describe things verbally and visually at the same time for my teammates.”

Of course, if you don’t have a video-length amount of information to convey, you can always add annotated screenshots to get your point across. You could even take an example from our annotated screenshots in the sections above — where we draw attention to the subject line and edits by using arrows and brackets.

Research and iterate

Writing isn’t useful if it isn’t read. And good digital writing doesn’t happen in a vacuum through intuition. We’ve seen that marketing and user experience writers are obsessed with research. Take a note from them, and do testing on your own.

Luckily, in a non-professional writing world, that simply means asking the people you’re working with for feedback. Check-ins about clarity and tone can be invaluable.

Then, when you find out that what you’re doing isn’t quite right, try something new.

We see a message from Omar that states, "... We are always trying to improve and optimize our operations in Support and serve both our external users as well as our internal teams as best we can. One of the tools that we use to do this is our Issues of the Week report. ... We are opening this short-lived discussion group to get some feedback from your team ... to help us shape the report going forward so we can try to achieve the maximum possible benefit."
Doister Omar uses Twist to ask the team how to improve his written weekly report to make it more useful for the rest of the team.

Good writing may take more time up-front, but pays dividends down the road when everyone can easily reference the information they need to do their jobs well. Using research-proven techniques to explain complex ideas, coordinate work, provide feedback, or simply say thank you, it’s possible to keep everyone in the loop no matter where in the world they happen to be.

After all, we’re all buckling under the weight of thousands of words to be read a day. If every professional used these data-backed writing methods, we’d all win back some precious mental headspace to actually get work done.

If you’re interested in a completely different way of working, try Twist. It’s a distraction-free workspace where teams can balance focused work with collaborative conversations. By replacing 100% of emails and group chats with a single app, communication stays organized, easy-to-reference, and transparent. Forever.

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