Understanding Business English

'Business English' Writing Workshop—Stage 1
(for non-native English speaking people)

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By Colin Ramsden, October 2006.

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Intent and purpose

Writing by handThe need to communicate effectively in English is paramount to conducting business in an international marketplace involving Western countries—which predominantly use English for their day-to-day business communications, transactions, and record-keeping.

This workshop series will demonstrate through principle and practical example how to improve your English language skills for your business activities using properly structured and practical business English.

The intended audience for this workshop is non-native English speaking people—who's native tongue (first language) is not English—which have limited and varied 'English-as-a-Second-Language' (ESL) speaking, writing, and reading skills.

This workshop will NOT teach English to someone who can't already read and write English. The intended purpose of this workshop is to provide the means to improve the English language skills of anyone interested, so that their English communications are more effective, accurate, and appropriate. This will enable more effective business English communication.

Tragically, the inappropriate use of just one word in an English sentence—accidentally or otherwise—can be catastrophic to the meaning of the sentence in English. For this reason, the importance of proper English sentence structure will be emphasised, so as to minimise the risk of wrong, inaccurate, vague, or misleading use of English language in your business communications.

Note Note

Business English refers to a more formal (less casual or conversational) style of English usage, often containing technical terminology and business jargon—rather than other styles of English usage such as creative, fiction, informal, legal, poetry, political, song, etc. According to Wikipedia's subject 'Business English' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Business_English), it is possible to study this subject to degree level; for example, the Hanoi Foreign Trade University in Vietnam offers a Bachelor's degree in Business English.

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Contents—stage one

Jump down to subjectThe ABC of improving your English writing skills

Jump down to subjectFocus upon your reader

Jump down to subjectBe concise yet complete

Jump down to subjectProvide structure

Jump down to subjectCheck your work

Jump down to subjectActively seek feedback


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The ABC of improving your English writing skills

  1. Nothing will improve your English writing more than practicing regular correspondence, in English, with a native (first language) English speaker. If you're really serious about improving your English writing skills, you absolutely must write (at least daily) in English with a native English speaker, and request that they correct your English writing errors. If you don't know anyone fitting this description, write to me. I promise to write back and correct your English as soon as I can. My email address is 'Colin@LotechSolutions.com'. So you now have no excuse!
  2. The next best thing you can do to improve your English writing skills is to get yourself an English dictionary, and use it whenever you are unsure about the spelling or use of a particular word. It doesn't really matter much which brand dictionary you use, nor which version or edition you use, so long as you use a dictionary to check your spelling. Dictionaries are an excellent way to broaden your language skills, as they not only list the spelling of a word, they also contain an explanation of the meaning of the word, and usually provide examples of proper usage.
  3. Thirdly, a proper understanding of English sentence structure is paramount to writing sensible English sentences. English language structural elements (grammar) such as phrases, clauses, subject, object, action, timing, and tense, all work together and in order, depending upon each other to create the intended meaning. When the order is misused, the intended meaning may be lost, resulting in a miscommunication.

These ABC's of skill improvements will be discussed further in [insert link here: 'Business English Writing Workshop—stage two'].

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Focus upon your reader

You will be far more effective in your writing (in any language) if you can imagine you are the reader of your writing whilst you're writing it. Imagine yourself in the position of your reader, as if you are them reading back what you have written.

You cannot presume that the thoughts and ideas in your head are the same thoughts and ideas which are in your reader's head. Equally, you cannot presume that, given the same information, they will necessarily arrive at the same conclusions which you may have arrived at. Everyone is different. Everyone has their own thoughts, feelings, ideas, and come to their own conclusions.

The task of writing is to set down your message clearly, so that someone reading what you have written will be able to understand your message without mistake. The task of effective writing is to do so with the minimal amount of words necessary whilst maintaining clarity and also avoiding any possible misunderstanding. You can improve your written communications by making them more effective—minimising potential confusion, maximising understanding—and saving time later, by not having to explain what you meant again and again. You become efficient and effective; win-win.

By focussing your writing for a particular audience—your intended reader—rather than just writing for anyone, you can concentrate on getting your message across using a writing style and technical terms you know they will understand, thus maximising understanding. The trick is to know who your reader is, what they likely already know, and how much you need to tell them. Then write to them, for them, telling them just what is required, with no more and no less information than is necessary to get your message across and understood.

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Be concise yet complete

You waste both—your and your reader's—time and energy whenever you write unnecessary or unstructured prose.

Info Information

Prose means any writing that is not poetry, and is distinguished from poetry by its greater variety of rhythm and its closer resemblance to the patterns of everyday speech. Prose writing is usually adopted for the description of facts or the discussion of ideas. Prose was at one time synonymous with dull, unimaginative or laboured writing, and the word "prosaic" has developed from prose to mean anything boring. For a fuller definition of prose, see 'http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prose' or consult your dictionary.

You need to keep your business English writing as concise as practicable, whilst maintaining clarity of meaning. Too little information, and your writing will be hard to understand. Too much information, and the importance of your message will be lost in the clutter of unnecessary words. The trick is to maintain the proper balance of just enough information in your writing; neither too much, nor too little.

Have you ever read something where the writer has launched into a subject without having introduced it beforehand, and you have no idea what they're talking about, not even the subject being discussed? That's an example of poor writing where little consideration has been given to the reader—you in this case—and too little relevant information has been provided.

Just how much is enough information, will depend upon a few factors (listed below) which you will need to determine and keep in mind whilst you're writing the message. These factors may include:

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Provide structure

To be effective with your business English communications, you should equally be concerned with the structure of you're writing—both logical and practical. 

Have you ever read something where the story appears to jump around haphazardly from point to point, with no apparent structure, or logical sequence? Do you remember just how difficult that was to try and make sense of, and how frustrating it was to understand? That's an example of illogical structure which you should avoid in your writing efforts. In business English writing, always be sequentially logical in the presentation of your information, laying the foundations early, which you can build upon later.

Always lead your business English reader through logically from start to finish, and not in any other order. Resist all temptation to try and dazzle or impress your reader with complicated logical structures in your writing. You will more likely lose the reader—to something else more interesting than what you've written—thus losing the opportunity to express your message with them. Your successful communication with this person has failed.

Your reader will more likely be impressed by your writing if they can logically follow what you've written—without the need for too-much thinking on their part—thus greatly improving the chances of understanding your meaning. In this case, your communication with this person was successful. And that's the whole point of writing, isn't it?

Practical structure has to do with the presentation and layout of the information. Have you ever read something where little consideration has been given to the means of how that information is being viewed? Like when the heading for a subject appears widowed at the bottom of a page, and the subject matter appears on the next page without its heading? Or when a picture is positioned without a descriptive caption, and the image makes no sense on its own, like a graph without values? Or where a long table is broken over more than one page, and the table column headings are not repeated on each page, so that you have to refer back to the first page of the table to understand what each column contains?

Those are examples of poor information structure, which you should always attempt to avoid in your own writing. The trick is to keep the practical structure of the information in mind, so that whichever way your information is presented, it makes sense to the reader.

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Check your work

Most typographical mistakes (typos) can be located easily and quickly by yourself when you proof-read you own writing. Checking—and correcting—your own work before sending it out will improve your perceived professionalism immeasurably. No other single activity on your part will make your writing better received.

Poor spelling, incorrect grammar, illogical structure, concealed meanings, and lack of appropriate information all contribute towards miscommunication. You can remedy all of these shortfalls to effective writing by the simple and time-honoured practice of reading what you've written, editing and correcting your own work.  

No well-written piece was ever finalised on the first draft. No self-respecting writer would ever dream of sending out their unedited work. And neither should you. Rereading and checking your own work allows you to correct it, to improve it, making it better, more professional, and potentially making it effective.

If you're not prepared to take the time to proof-read and check your own writing, how can you expect that anyone else should take their time to read it? Respect your reader and give them the benefit of a error-free message.

Checking and correcting your own work will show in the outcome, because your message stands its greatest chance of being read and understood when the reader isn't confused or left to wonder what you really meant. Only when your message is understood can it possibly be effective. If it's not understood, it can't possibly be effective.  

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Actively seek feedback

The simplest of control circuits utilise feedback to regulate and control their outputs. Feedback provides a point of reference which can be used to prevent runaway or unexpected output conditions. The same logic applies to your writing and communications. Without some sort of feedback and correction, you have no way of knowing whether you are producing unexpected or runaway output conditions with your business English writing.

How do you know when you've gone too far, or not far enough? Without some sort of feedback, you may never know how much is enough, let alone how you are being received in relation to that, nor what other people think of what you've got to say.

Unfortunately, it is a sad fact that many people will never tell you what they think about what you've said, good or bad, and indeed, many cultures actively discourage any such comment. That is why you need to be active about seeking feedback to your communication.

In some cases, you may need to ask directly. In others, observation of how your message is being received may be enough. Resorting to the excuse that "you've heard nothing" and making a quantum leap to conclude that "therefore, everything is right", is a lazy attitude of self denial that there may be something wrong, which could be done better "if only you had known about it". It's up to you, the writer, not the reader, to determine how well you are being received. Only then, can you be in a position to adjust your output accordingly to improve your writing.

If you are writing directly to someone, you can ask them an appropriate question, and use their answer to determine your effectiveness. If you're writing using email or the web, you can use online tools to request feedback such as ratings or scorecards as are used on Amazon.com as per the example below:

Click to select

See that I provide a feedback email link at the bottom of every page on my website (lotechsolutions.com) below. You too, should provide every means to actively encourage and seek feedback in your communications. Only then, will you be in a position to possibly determine whether your communications are being effective or not.

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What's next?

Start practicing your business English skills right now. If you don't keep practicing, you'll never master them.

Stage 2 details the ABC's of skill improvements [insert link here: 'Business English Writing Workshop—stage two'].


See Also

Who am I? > find out more

Jump to site home page Lotech Solutions' Tips, Tricks, and Procedures

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