Written communication involves any type of interaction that makes use of the written word. It is one of the two main types of communication, along with oral/spoken communication. Written communication is very common in business situations, so it is important for small business owners and managers to develop effective written communication skills. Some of the various forms of written communication that are used internally for business operations include memos, reports, bulletins, job descriptions, employee manuals, and electronic mail. Examples of written communication avenues typically pursued with clients, vendors, and other members of the business community, meanwhile, include electronic mail, Internet Web sites, letters, proposals, telegrams, faxes, postcards, contracts, advertisements, brochures, and news releases.
Ironically, the importance of good writing skills in the business world has become more evident even as companies rely increasingly on computers and other new technologies to meet their obligations. Indeed, business experts warn that any business's positive qualities—from dedication to customer service to high-tech expertise—will be blunted to some degree if they are unable to transfer that dedication and knowledge to the printed page. "Whether you are pitching a business case or justifying a budget, the quality of your writing can determine success or failure," wrote Paula Jacobs in InfoWorld. "Writing ability is especially important in customer communication. Business proposals, status reports, customer documentation, technical support, or even e-mail replies all depend on clear written communication."
The basic process of communication begins when a fact or idea is observed by one person. That person (the sender) may decide to translate the observation into a message, and then transmit the message through some communication medium to another person (the receiver). The receiver then must interpret the message and provide feedback to the sender indicating that the message has been understood and appropriate action taken.
As Herta A. Murphy and Herbert W. Hildebrandt observed in Effective Business Communications, good communication should be complete, concise, clear, concrete, correct, considerate, and courteous. More specifically, this means that communication should: answer basic questions like who, what, when, where; be relevant and not overly wordy; focus on the receiver and his or her interests; use specific facts and figures and active verbs; use a conversational tone for readability; include examples and visual aids when needed; be tactful and good natured; and be accurate and nondiscriminatory. Unclear, inaccurate, or inconsiderate business communication can waste valuable time, alienate employees or customers, and destroy goodwill toward management or the overall business.
In their book Management: Function and Strategy, Thomas S. Bateman and Carl P. Zeithaml described several advantages and disadvantages of using written forms of communication. One advantage is that written messages do not have to be delivered on the spur of the moment; instead, they can be edited and revised several times before they are sent so that the content can be shaped to maximum effect. Another advantage is that written communication provides a permanent record of the messages that have been sent and can be saved for later study. Since they are permanent, written forms of communication also enable recipients to take more time in reviewing the message and providing appropriate feedback. For these reasons, written forms of communication are often considered more appropriate for complex business messages that include important facts and figures. Other benefits commonly associated with good writing skills include increased customer/client satisfaction; improved interorganizational efficiency; and enhanced image in the community and industry.
There are also several potential pitfalls associated with written communication, however. For instance, unlike oral communication, wherein impressions and reactions are exchanged instantaneously, the sender of written communication does not generally receive immediate feedback to his or her message. This can be a source of frustration and uncertainty in business situations in which a swift response is desired. In addition, written messages often take more time to compose, both because of their information-packed nature and the difficulty that many individuals have in composing such correspondence. Many companies, however, have taken a proactive stance in addressing the latter issue. Mindful of the large number of workers who struggle with their writing abilities, some firms have begun to offer on-site writing courses or enrolled employees in business writing workshops offered by professional training organizations, colleges, and community education programs.
Electronic mail has emerged as a highly popular business communication tool in recent years. Indeed, its capacity to convey important corporate communications swiftly and easily has transformed it into a communications workhorse for business enterprises of all sizes and orientations. But many users of e-mail technology pay little attention to basic rules of grammar and format when composing their letters, even when they are penning business correspondence addressed to clients, customers, vendors, business partners, or internal colleagues. This sloppy correspondence reflects an "astonishing" lack of professionalism, wrote Sana Reynolds in Communication World: "We seem to have been seduced by the ease and informality of the medium to produce messages that ignore the rules and conventions usually in place when producing hard copy. We send out messages with grammar, usage or spelling errors…. In the name of speed, we throw caution to the winds and forget sentence patterning, paragraphing, and other conventions that make messages intelligible, creating unattractive and impenetrable data dumps."
Given this unfortunate trend, many business experts counsel companies to install firm guidelines on tone, content, and shape of e-mail correspondence. These guidelines should make it clear that all employees are expected to adhere to the same standards of professionalism that (presumably) remain in place for traditional postal correspondence. Proper spelling and grammar and the ability to frame correspondence in suitably diplomatic language should be hallmarks of electronic mail as well as regular mail, especially if the communication is directed at a person or persons outside the company.
Bateman, Thomas S., and Carl P. Zeithaml. Management: Function and Strategy. Irwin, 1990.
Golen, Steven. Effective Business Communication. Washington, DC: U.S. Small Business Administration, 1989.
Jacobs, Paula. "Strong Writing Skills Essential for Success, Even in IT." InfoWorld. July 6, 1998.
Murphy, Herta A., and Herbert W. Hildebrandt. Effective Business Communications. McGraw-Hill, 1991.
Reynolds, Sana. "Composing Effective E-Mail Messages." Communication World. July 15, 1997.
Schafer, Sarah. "Office E-Mail: It's Fast, Easy and All Too Often Misunderstood." International Herald Tribune. November 1, 2000.