Forget Twitter! Can You Write a Complex, Logical Business Document?
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, has a regular practice which requires his senior management team to arrive at their regular meetings with a six-page memo. They share and digest the contents for 30 minutes before initiating conversation. Fortune magazine’s article, “Amazon’s Jeff Bezos: The ultimate disrupter,“ describes the team’s process:
“Amazon executives call these documents ‘narratives,’ and even Bezos realizes that for the uninitiated—and fans of the PowerPoint® presentation—the process is a bit odd….Bezos says the act of communal reading guarantees the group’s undivided attention. Writing a memo is an even more important skill to master….[According to Bezos], ‘There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.'” (Fortune, November 16, 2012)
We agree that the ability write a cogent document is a sign of clear thinking, but for many, it can be daunting. What if you worked for someone like Jeff Bezos? What would you do if you had to write a complex document? How do you make sure your document’s logic and organization reflect your ability to think clearly?
Let’s assume that you’ve already analyzed your reader, generated your ideas, and arranged them roughly in the main categories. These might include “Recommendations,” “Action requested,” “Next steps,” “Background,” and “Conclusions.” What next?
Perhaps the most difficult and most important part of writing is sequencing, or organizing information. Readers expect all documents, long or short, to be logically organized and easy to follow.
Choosing a sequence or method of development (MOD)
Unless your company has fixed guidelines (always good to check), you have several options for sequencing your document. Let your purpose guide your choice. If you’re not sure where to put your key point, focus specifically on what you need to accomplish, who your readers are, and how much time they will spend with your document. Put yourself in your readers’ shoes. What will they look for? What do they want to know first?
Put your bottom line on top most of the time
Unless you have resistant readers, you should generally put your main point (bottom line) first. This allows your readers to quickly and easily understand why you’re writing and what, if anything, you need them to do.
When planning your document, think about these different ways to organize your information.
MOD #1: Order of importance
This method works best for the majority of writing projects. Take a trip report, for example. You may be tempted to report your experience chronologically, but if the final presentation was most relevant and useful to your company, start with that. Another consideration: how much time and interest in your subject does your reader have? Write like a good news journalist, who knows the most important information is always at the beginning of the article.
MOD #2: Chronology
Some documents require a chronological method of development, where events are listed in the order in which they happened. Examples are minutes of meetings, descriptions of test procedures, growth statistics, and accident reports. However, even when using a chronological sequence, remember to emphasize important information. Imagine your reader constantly asking, “What’s the bottom line?”
MOD #3: Process
Documents that explain processes or procedures require a particular order. Unlike a chronological structure, which describes an event that has already happened, processes require you to impose your own sequence. Keep in mind, too, that your process may have parallel sub-processes: several events or steps occurring simultaneously or dependent upon one another, as in a flow chart. Proper sequencing is crucial.
MOD #4: Analysis
Analysis means formulating a hypothesis and rigorously testing, through a questioning process, whether it is true or not. Asking questions will lead you to research that will help confirm or disprove your hypothesis. Sequencing your document analytically means following a logical progression of thought (introducing your hypothesis, presenting related research, and confirming or disproving it) from the beginning to the end.
Careful analysis is a complex task, yet you want your document to be easy to read and use. Clarity and logical organization are therefore vital.
Highlight your main points, but be careful and thorough. If you fail to include every aspect of your hypothesis, your analysis could be discrediting or, worse, lead to a bad business decision.
Other MODs that people find useful in certain circumstances include
organization in space
specific to general or general to specific.
If you’d like more information about other MODs, pick up our Instant Answer Guide to Business Writing: An A-Z Source for Today’s Business Writer. You can buy it on Amazon.
Remember these organizing principles
Let your purpose and type of information determine your method of development. Don’t be afraid to combine several MODs to achieve the best possible structure for each part of your document.
In most business and technical writing, put conclusions or decisions first. Then give supporting facts and reasons. Make your details and background subordinate.
Remember to put your “bottom line,” or most important point, on top. If your document is long, put key ideas at the end as well as at the beginning. Your readers will expect a bottom-line statement in your conclusion, especially if it is a separate, headlined section.
What’s your favorite MOD?