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Make Your Memos Hit the Mark

Dec. 17, 2009

Effective written communication is an important skill for facility managers when dealing with tenants and occupants, service providers, and internal departments.

Whenever you write something, you’re trying to influence someone. You want them to follow your instructions, give you their approval, accept your position, or look favorably upon you and your company.

Your ability to influence others is important to your success. You’ll fail to influence others if your memos and letters are hard to read, e-mails are ignored, procedures are overly complex, building notices miss the point and look unprofessional, business cases are unconvincing, and occupant newsletters are uninteresting.

Unfortunately, many of the traditional ways of writing simply don’t work when you’re trying to influence the people within your buildings. Many facility and property managers also tend to write backwards by writing before identifying the purpose, developing the message, assessing the audience, or focusing attention on what’s important and how to influence the reader.

Keep in mind that you’re fighting against powerful forces that make it difficult to get your message across:

  • Short attention span. If you don’t get the point across quickly, you lose your audience’s interest. If they aren’t interested in what you say, they won’t read to the end.
  • Information overload. Everyone is bombarded with information, so your message must be uncluttered and easy to see and understand. If your audience doesn’t see your argument, you can’t convince them.
  • Limited time. Nobody has time to read everything that crosses his or her desk, so you lose your audience quickly with long, tedious documents. If the person doesn’t want to read a long document, he or she may read only the summaries and miss the critical details. This is also important to remember when writing notices posted in the elevator or lobby – people won’t have much time to stop and read.

Instead of worrying about spelling, grammar, sounding smart, or following the formats everyone else uses, focus on what’s important: content that hits the mark, with structure that makes it easy to see and understand. Then you can worry about spelling and grammar, or get someone else you trust to polish it up. (Remember, even the best writer has an editor.)

The key is to have a strategy before you start. Communicating without a strategy is like throwing darts blindfolded – just less likely to hurt your audience. There are some basic yet important steps to communicating effectively.

Step 1. Establish the Purpose
Your message and goal must be carefully integrated throughout the communication and guide content and structure. It’s important that you know what you want from your audience, and that you make it clear to them. For your building newsletter, this may be gaining support for changes or showing occupants how proactive you are. A notice in the lobby may tell occupants about changes in a process, project activity, or your greening initiatives. Your business case aims to sell your position to someone who can approve it. Your memo explains something new in a way that creates support and makes sure instructions are followed.

Step 2. Assess and Target the Reader
Understanding and assessing the reader is critical. You can’t influence someone unless you know what will influence them. Even the best ideas fail unless the reader understands them. This isn’t easy, but, by assessing what your audience wants or needs to hear, you can tailor your communication for maximum effectiveness. Consider how your message is received. This includes the level of detail, type of information, tone, wording, examples, and benefits, risks, or rewards. Keep in mind that your communication may need to reach different readers with different needs, so understand the differences and decide where your focus should be.

Part of effective communication includes understanding what your audience’s interests are. For an occupant receiving a newsletter, he or she needs to know how something affects him or her. Someone reading a business case will want to know what decision is necessary and what impact it will have. A tenant receiving a memo about the lease needs to understand the legal implications and the risks, as well as what to do to rectify the issue or how to comply with lease terms. An employee wants to know why a policy is being implemented, what should be done to comply, and how to do it.

Step 3. Create Content that Supports Your Purpose
The content must support your purpose. Build your content with facts and examples that will be meaningful to the reader and support your purpose.

Where possible, consider possible objections, and build those into your communications upfront – don’t leave unanswered questions. If you write a tenant memo, consider what the responses will be, and address them in the memo. When you send a written communication, you don’t have the luxury of a discussion to clarify issues.

Focus on information that matters to the reader, not what matters to you. Use examples your audience can relate to, and avoid jargon they won’t understand. For instance, in a memo about a new project, don’t say, “Building comfort will improve through a new zoned control system for the HVAC system.” Instead, say, “You will be more comfortable because there is more temperature control in your space.”

If you expect the reader to take action, clearly outline what you expect, and make it easy to take that action. This is especially important for approvals, policies, or procedures.

It’s easy to pack lots of information into your communications, especially when you know the topic and are passionate about it. In the interest of keeping it simple and short, prioritize the information based on its potential influence and impact. Throw out content that doesn’t support your message.

Step 4. Style, Grammar, and Spelling
Don’t try to impress the reader with your writing – you aren’t writing a novel. Make written material visually easy to read with shorter sentences and more paragraphs, especially in long documents. Simplify sentences using fewer words and eliminating unnecessary language. You don’t need to say “involves the use of” when you can say “uses.” Add short intros and summaries to reinforce messages. Don’t be afraid to repeat important content if it gets your message across and influences the reader.

Avoid passive language, which uses more words and is harder to read and understand. Active language conveys a more powerful, action-oriented impression. Don’t say: “The air was tested by the specialist.” Say: “The specialist tested the air.”

Step 5. Structure and Format
If the reader can’t clearly see and understand what you’re saying, your effort is wasted. Because of the reader’s limited time, short attention span, and information overload, your job is to structure information to be compelling and easy to read and understand.

Start with a compelling title and use a powerful first sentence or paragraph. Don’t save the best content for last, or the reader may never read it. Get them to keep reading by convincing them that they should.

Use white space and visual cues, such as headings, tables, diagrams, and bulleted lists. Keep things short, and present only the information needed to influence the reader. Highlight the important information, but don’t highlight so much that nothing stands out.

When writing reports, business cases, or other long documents, use descriptive headings. For instance, use “Your Current Situation” vs. “Background,” “Problems Being Solved” vs. “Objectives,” and “Your Approval is Needed” vs. “Conclusion.”

Here are three techniques you can use:

  1. Chunking. This involves pulling out key information from your main text and separating it. You can use a text box, an indented paragraph, a graphic, or a table. By using a text box, for instance, the main text can wrap around the box. Use shading, borders, color, or a bold title to draw attention. Don’t be afraid to repeat information from the main text when using this technique.
  2. Signposts. Signposts provide visual references. They point the reader to information you want them to see. The most obvious examples are headings and sub-headings. Techniques you can use:
    • White space around information to provide visual separation around key points and items you want to bring attention to.
    • Meaningful headings that draw attention.
    • Bullet points that say something (don’t just use round bullets).
    • Bold words within a sentence, which can be effective when used sparingly.
    • Charts, diagrams, and figures that illustrate your point.
  3. Boxing. Boxing involves separating information using a table structure to focus attention and organize information (see an example in the images at the top of this article). Use the “table” feature in your word-processing software. You can use lines to separate boxes or remove all or some of the lines for a cleaner look.

These techniques require less effort when reading and will help the reader find and accept the information you’re giving them. Essentially, you’re guiding your reader to your message with these visual cues, and you’re focusing their attention on what you want them to see.

While technical skills and knowledge are often emphasized for property and facility managers, it’s the soft skills that separate the top performers from the average performers because they’re able to get results by influencing others with their communications.

By using a strategic approach to communicating and getting your message across, you can enhance your career and contribute to your company’s success.

Michel Theriault is principal with Strategic Advisor, a consulting firm specializing in strategic and management issues within the facility and building management industry. For more information, contact Michel at [email protected].

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