Ever read an annual report from Warren Buffet. Try it. Easy, isn’t it? Few successful business-people write so clearly. There is no pretension, no haughty references to obscure allusions and no strange acronyms. It’s all there in black and white. Here’s what Buffet had to say about other business writers, though,
“For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said. If corporate lawyers and their clients follow the advice in this handbook, my life is going to become much easier.
In the late 90s, I found the Plain Language writing technique almost by accident. It’s also called Plain English, by the way. I was reading a lot about Warren Buffet a few years back and came across a nice, short document he wrote for the SEC. These are the folks who submit legal and business document to Wall Street when going on the stock exchanges. Buffet writes like he speaks. Direct, immediate and without pretension.
Audience Analysis worksheets.
From the handbook:
There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description. Maybe we simply don’t have the technical knowledge to grasp what the writer wishes to convey. Or perhaps the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon. “
He adds that “Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.”
It’s a great read and you can download it here www.sec.gov/pdf/handbook.pdf in PDF.
Write Business Proposals in clear English
So, with this in mind, I wrote this short guide to help you write Business Proposals in clear English. It explains how to prepare an business documents that readers can digest in one reading. That’s the acid test. They shouldn’t have to read them twice and three times to get the meaning. It also covers how to use Plain Language writing techniques to win more business, accelerate your tender process, and encourage staff to contribute to the overall tender process.
1. Start Early
Developing a Plain English document takes time – the first time!. For your first Plain English proposal, allow extra time to write, edit, and revise. Add more time than you would expect to your usual schedule if possible. The next time it’s easier.
2. Study the principles of Plain English
Remember: you want your request for proposal to be understood in one reading. This means you need to:
- Identify your target audience i.e. Government departments.
- Consider what they need to know.
- Consider the technical terms they may, or may not, know.
- Develop plain English writing guidelines for your staff.
- Think about how to organize and format your Proposal.
3. Promote Plain English amongst your Staff
Once you’ve seen the benefits of plain English compared with other writing styles, you can promote its values to your own staff and senior management. You need to get your staff onside so that they will begin writing in this style. Likewise, you also need to convince your managers of its values and possibly funding for a training program. Explain to both camps how they will benefit. Outline a high-level roadmap with timelines for the overall program.
4. Contact an experienced proposal writer
The first time you write a plain English proposal, you may find it time-consuming and more difficult than you thought. If this is the case, you’re on the right track! Everything worthwhile is difficult the first time round – soon you will get the hang of it.
You can also approach a writing consultant, especially someone who has a proven track record of writing good, clear English.
5. Review previous Proposals and see where you can improve
Before you start writing, consider the following:
- Literacy level. What level of education is required to understand the Proposal? Use the Fog Index to test your proposal’s readability.
- Clarity. What parts of the Proposal are hard to understand? Are the sentences too long and complex? Does it use technical terms and acronyms that the target audience will not understand?
- Organization. How easy can you find relevant information? Would the Proposal be clearer if you reordered the main sections and possibly the sub-sections within it? Does the table of contents and index need sharpening? Are there too many/too few levels of information in the TOC.
- Repetition. Is the same information repeated in several sections? Does it have any real benefit?
- Headings. Should the headings be re-written in the form of questions that each section answers?
- Format. Do you need to add more bullet-point lists? Put keywords in bold? Use more white space?
6. Create an outline to help readers find information faster
One very effective writing style is to write headings as questions,which each section answers. If you include sub-sections, use a numbered outline format (e.g. 1.2, 1.3) for the section headings. This helps the reader find the main sections quickly and see the relationship among subsections.
7. Write the RFP, section by section, using plain language techniques
If some sections are hard to write, read them aloud and see where they are difficult to understand. Go through the document section by section.
Write the first draft of key sections first, and then work on the inside sections. Once you’ve written these, refine the text by editing each section tightly. However, make sure your text does not become too cold and dry. Write as if you were speaking to a colleague whom you respect; this often helps control the tone of the document.
8. Review and Revise
Once you’ve finished the first draft, get it reviewed internally by colleagues who can add value to the review process. Don’t choose colleagues who are too close to the Proposal, as they will not see errors. Instead, get a neutral reviewer if possible. After getting the feedback, make the required edits.
If possible, ask volunteers from the target population to review the draft Proposal. Ask them if they can locate information easily. When interviewing ask open questions and you will get a better response.
Avoid closed questions, such as, is this a great RFP? Most will say Yes, just to please you – and make you go away!
Ask how much they could read in one sitting. Again, revise as needed.
9. Create an easy-to-read format
Format the document to make it easy to read and attractive in presentation. If you have time, prepare a template that can be re-used for all future RFP’s. This will reduce the time spend on preparing the document.
- Leave a blank line between paragraphs
- Use bulleted lists
- Highlight main points with bold and italics
- Use boxes for examples
- Use white space generously
- Include margins of at least one inch all around the page
- Use two (2) columns to increase readability, if practical
Use several different type sizes for headings. In many documents, the headings are in San Serif font (i.e. Verdana) and the body is in a Serif font (e.g. Times New Roman). Use a contrast in style to add emphasis.
10. Get feedback – and share it
Lastly, see if the Proposal works! Ask the external reviewers how they felt using the ‘new’ plain English Proposal. Get feedback from personnel involved in the review process and collate it for distribution.
- Did they find that the plain English Proposal made a better application?
- Was it easier to write the application, and what made the most difference?
- What worked and what needs more refinement.
Summarize what you learned and share this information with colleagues. Encourage them to try writing plain English Proposals.
Track Your Proposal Wins
Keep a record of all the Proposals written in plain English and see if their success rate is higher than the previous styles of writing. There are more great writing resources are at: http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/
About the Author: Ivan Walsh provides Business Tips for Smart People on Klariti.com. His also runs the popular Business Planning Blog at http://www.ivanwalsh.com. Follow him on Twitter @ivanwalsh
PS: The Audience Analysis Template is here.