- Begin with the end
- Start with what's most important
- Have a clear call to action
- Say less
- Make it skimmable
- Chunk information
- Write in plain language
- Write visually
- Research and iterate
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 Design||Business Communication|
|What is the problem we are solving?||What problem am I trying to solve?|
|Who are our users?||Who is my audience?|
|What are these users trying to do?||What are their needs?|
|How could this design fail?||How could this communication fail?|
|What's the simpler version?||How can I make this message simple?|
|Is there anything we can remove?||What can I delete?|
|What assumptions are we making?||Am I making assumptions?|
|How will we define success?||What is success?|
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.