Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Message Patterns


Using a process approach to writing (conscious steps of preparing, arranging, saying, and shaping) can help you make more efficient use of your time in a wide range of business and professional communication situations. Among the most common message types you may be writing will be the memorandum, the letter, the report, and the proposal. While all these kinds of documents should be marked by effective writing, each type also has certain characteristics of its own. This description looks briefly at traditional versions of these structural and stylistic attributes.

Memorandums and Letters

Preparing memorandums (or memoranda) will probably be one of the most frequent on-the-job tasks you will face. Memos are usually brief documents dealing with routine matters, and they normally remain within an organization. Most often informal documents, memorandums can be as simple as a completed form or as extensive as a policy statement on how to appeal personnel actions. Frequently a memorandum will get read by several audiences, a point to consider in deciding what to say and how to say it. A brief memorandum like that shown in figure 1 may begin as a message (sent either in writing or as e-mail) from one individual to another, but soon become widely disseminated. This particular memo, for example, may be copied by its immediate audience (here, Willa Clarke), attached to a cover memo (here, possibly one saying that this week's caseworker meeting date is changed), and either sent to every person in an entire division or posted on the division's bulletin board. Other types of memorandums may be placed in a file and used weeks or months later by individuals unknown to either the original sender or addressee. (This memo uses an American format for the date; other examples in the chapter will use the international format of date/month/year, Sometimes memos will use a briefer format, but that can confuse: the date in the example could be shown as 6/16/10 in an American document, but 16.6.10 in an international format. Common sense can clarify this entry, but a date such as April 6 or 6 April is obviously clearer when written out.)

Figure 1. Routine Memorandum.

Date: June 16, 20xx
To: Willa Clarke, Social Services Supervisor
From: Mike Corelli
Subject: Change in Caseworker Meeting Date

This week's caseworker meeting has been changed from Tuesday to Thursday afternoon at 2:00 in room 381. Ms. Imperiale, the district director, will describe the state's new records retention policy.

Yet memorandums can also be used for a variety of other reasons, such as reports or messages of transmittal. Although usually internal communications, they sometimes do get sent to customers and clients outside of the organization when the matter being discussed is a commonplace one. Memorandums for external audiences and those dealing with other than everyday concerns can pose special problems in structure.

Business letters, of course, differ from memos in format. Because they are generally perceived as more formal than memorandums, letters are sometimes used within organizations for significant situations, such as commendations, promotions, reprimands, hirings, and firings. But, more importantly, they most often are external communication. You are less likely to know the reader as well as you would someone within your own organization, so concern about persona and audience becomes more conscious. Letters also serve more frequently than memos to handle situations that are not routine. Like memos, they can also confirm in writing arrangements and relationships originally established by personal meetings, telephone or e-mail.

Contexts themselves may vary widely; you'll need to consider both your own objectives and, when you can determine it, your reader's likely reaction. Ideally, these will be the same. If, for example, your message complains about a product or service, conveying your dissatisfaction to your reader could result in several outcomes. Simply stating your case may lead your reader to note the information, but do nothing further; his/her response may be neutral. Possibly, if several complaints like yours arrive, she/he may then act to remedy the problem you and the others mentioned.

You could, of course, choose other approaches. If instead your message conveys your anger or attacks the reader, sarcastically or otherwise, the result may be either defensiveness or anger on the part of the reader. "Telling them off" may make you feel better, but is unlikely to remedy the situation and may even cut off communication entirely. On the other hand, you could seek a specific remedy, such as a refund, repair, or a replacement--remedies which, if the product or service were defective, your reader might interpret as routine matters to be dealt with in the normal course of business. Thus, your choice of persona and sense of context can help you to determine reader behavior and to obtain the feedback you want.

For these reasons, different structures have developed to handle many of the common letter and memorandum writing situations. These structures use familiar arranging strategies (deductive, inductive, and persuasive sequences) to deal with varying message contexts.

Routine and Positive Situations

A deductive (or direct) pattern, which begins with the message's main idea, is effective for situations in which you expect a positive reader response, either because you are conducting routine business or telling the reader something he or she wishes to hear. The deductive pattern works well, for example, when you are ordering something, asking for information, providing information, congratulating someone, or giving someone a positive response to a request or suggestion.

Since the business side of the message is your main concern in such writing, get to the point early--in the first paragraph. After you've stated your main idea, add any explanation or support needed to clarify that main idea. Then go on to further details, questions, or secondary concerns. Figure 2 illustrates an opening paragraph of a request organized in the direct pattern. {Some examples shown here will use the American date format of month/date/year.)

Figure 2. Routine Request.

Please cancel my subscription to Human Services Quarterly as of July 1. I would appreciate your sending the refund check to my home address, 2430 Center Street, Pine Hill, TX 75118.

Positive replies, like inquiries, should generally be organized by direct structure. Incidentally, although the opening of a reply may allude indirectly to the message being answered, starting out with comments such as "we have received your letter of June 7" tends to waste the impact of the potentially emphatic opening position. Such openings make sense only if you are unable to actually answer the request for some time and wish to at least assure your reader that he/she is not simply being ignored. Letters of this type should, if possible, go on to indicate approximately when the reader can expect an answer. Figure 3 illustrates a typical opening for a positive reply.

Figure 3. Positive Reply.

As you requested, your subscription to Human Services Quarterly has been canceled as of July 1. Your refund check for $36.00 will be sent to you by our subscription center within two weeks. [The letter might go on with promotional or good-will material.]

A variety of other situations can also be handled as routine or positive. An apology for an error, for example, because it is intended to make the reader feel better about whatever has happened, may be perceived in this way. Obviously, if the problem can be fixed, that’s the thing to do. But if there’s no solution (for example, a missed appointment), sometimes it’s best simply to first apologize, then explain what happened, and finally take steps to restore a normal business relationship. Above all, having apologized at the start, don’t repeat the apology at the end; once the message becomes positive, it should stay positive. A letter of resignation, if it is expected and follows earlier discussions of your intentions, may also be viewed as routine, but if unexpected, may generate a negative context. Thus, your awareness of context can affect the way you choose to structure your messages.

Negative Situations

When you expect resistance from your reader or have bad news to tell him or her, use an inductive (also called indirect or delayed) structure to prepare your reader for the negative information. The overall pacing of disappointing or negative messages tends to be more gradual than that of messages in direct structure; in this way, they can better manage emotional as well as business or intellectual responses. You might, for example, have to announce something the reader will dislike, such as a rent increase or a coming layoff. You may have to refuse a request or an adjustment. Or you may be able to offer only part of what the reader wants. Figure 4 illustrates typical opening material for a negative reply.

Figure 4. Negative Reply.

As you requested, the balance of your subscription has been canceled as of July 1. Refunds for unused portions of subscriptions are pro-rated based upon the number of issues remaining. Because you have already received four issues, you will be receiving a check within the next two weeks from our subscription service center for $24.00, the unused balance. [The letter would then go on to a good will closing, possibly including promotional or resale material.]

In this structure, you do not get to the main business point immediately. Instead, you first attempt to create an open communication climate and prepare your reader for the message's emotional impact by building a brief "buffer" of neutral or positive elements that will eventually lead to the main idea. The buffer, because it prepares your reader for that business point, should have some relation to the eventual topic, or the device will simply waste your reader's time, but the buffer should not signal either a "yes" or a "no."

Follow the buffer with an explanation in language that again does not signal an immediate "no." Avoid tell-tale signs of bad news such as beginning the second paragraph with "however" or "but." Be sure that this explanation precedes the refusal or the bad news; you owe the courtesy of such an explanation to your reader, who might ignore it if the negative material came first. Sometimes, in fact, an appropriate explanation can suggest or pave the way for discussion of alternatives that might accomplish much of what the reader originally wanted.

If you do a good job of explaining, in some situations you may not actually need to come right out and say "no." So long as you are clear about it and avoid misleading your reader, an implicit refusal may be all that you need include. For example, telling readers what they may do sometimes makes quite apparent what they may not do. Under most circumstances, a statement that all accountants will be needed for special audits 7-12 June, but that all other days in June remain available for vacations removes the need explicitly to deny a request for vacation days on 8-10 . Then you can go on with the task of reestablishing a cooperative spirit of "business as usual" and concern for your reader by message's end.

Effective negative messages, in short, downplay the negative. They provide a clear explanation for the bad news and avoid hiding behind "company policy." They use positive, not negative, language where possible. Instead of saying "I can't speak at your meeting on March 3," for example, a letter might explain, "I will be in Buffalo on March 3." Finally, effective negative messages de-emphasize the negative by putting the main idea in the middle of the message, by placing the negative information in a subordinate clause, and by ending on a positive note.

Of course, negative or disappointing news can be presented in a direct pattern; certain readers in certain circumstances will perceive this apparently negative information routine. Thus, not having an order arrive because the original order request contained insufficient information can easily become a routine request for that information; a second notice for a monthly payment may be simply a duplicate bill with "second notice" or "reminder" stamped at the top of the page. Be careful, however, that your reader, not simply you yourself, will react routinely. You may prefer getting bad news before you get an explanation, but letting this preference guide message construction can result in your sending a message that is writer, not reader, oriented.
Persuasive Situations

Messages that attempt to convince someone are another kind of communication often best served by inductive organizational patterns. Sales letters, memos trying to convince someone to adopt a policy or point of view, reports calling for action by the reader, and letters of application for employment are a few examples of such messages. Figure 5 illustrates the opening of a persuasive sales message.

Figure 5. Persuasive Message.

As a concerned professional, you realize the importance of staying current with the latest developments in the rapidly changing human services field. And you probably know that reading Human Services Quarterly enables over 10,000 of your colleagues to maintain that "up-to-date" edge as leaders in their profession.

Now you can join this well-informed group and enjoy a 20% saving over Human Services Quarterly's usual rates. [The rest of the message might show benefits of subscribing and then ask the reader to act be signing and returning a subscription card. Although the letter could ask for a check, it might simply call for a commitment thus: "No need to pay now. Just sign and return the card. We'll bill you later."]

Persuasive messages pose a special problem because very often your reader won't expect them and may therefore have no particular interest in what you have to say. In other cases, you will need to overcome different kinds of resistance to get the reader to act as you want or to change his or her mind. A special kind of delayed approach can sometimes succeed in such situations.

To remember this approach, think of the words "AIDA" (for "attention-interest-desire-action") or "AICA" (for "attention- interest-conviction-action). Begin by getting the reader's attention; very often, all you need to do is picture a reader benefit. Then, build your reader's interest in reading what you have to say by using details. Next, create a desire in the reader to buy what you're selling, do what you're requesting, or accept the idea you're suggesting. Last, ask for the action you want on the part of the reader. As with negative situations, moving readers through persuasive messages may require more deliberate pacing than that of the usual direct structure message. Take your reader through these stages gradually, and you improve your chances of getting the response you want.

Obviously, these patterns represent only general strategies, and exceptions will always exist. For instance, the writer of a fifth notice for an unpaid bill will probably spend little time on maintaining customer good will through a buffer, and promotional material sent to someone who has requested the information in the first place will not need to use an extended "attention" opening. Further, some messages will involve more than a single type of situation. For such messages, you will need to decide on your primary purpose (perhaps, for example, a persuasive approach to a combined persuasive-negative message) and emphasize that goal.


Reports vary widely in content, formality, function, length, and methods of preparation, but all have a common goal: the transmission of information, often information which specifically has been requested. Sometimes, but not always, that information may be accompanied by commentary or informed opinion.

Characteristics of Reports

Some reports, called "periodic reports," appear at regular intervals. The weekly progress report on a research project and the monthly admissions report for a college are typical examples. Other reports are generated in response to a situation; each time the particular situation occurs (for example, an accident or an arrest), a report follows. A third kind of report, the "special report," is usually a one-time job. A report to a manager comparing three possible microcomputers the company might consider purchasing would be one type of special report.

Reports also differ according to what they do with the information they contain. An "informational" report simply presents data or facts without further comment. The college admissions report that lists numbers of representatives' visits to different states and the number of applications from those states would be an informational report. "Interpretive" reports add explanatory remarks, but not opinion. An interpretive admissions report might point out that "15% of the representatives' visits are to schools in the Middle Atlantic region, but 40% of our applicants come from this area." An analytic report (or recommendation) adds opinion to interpretation: "I suggest that we cut representatives' time in the Midwest and Southeast so that they can spend more time in the Middle Atlantic area."

The tone of reports tends to be objective. Some reports, indeed, are simply entered into standard forms. Reports are sometimes done as memos and letters, but frequently, unlike letters and memos, reports do follow certain specified patterns often required by employers. Many reports, for reasons of readability and clarity, are divided into sections and use different levels of headings for the different portions. When reports are presented in a letter or memorandum format, headings are sometimes not used, but the topic sentences of different sections can provide a function similar to that of the headings.

Some long formal reports appear in formats that resemble those of books, complete with covers, title pages, and tables of contents. But, regardless of their complexity or simplicity, reports seek to present information in a clear, efficient manner; the various characteristics of reports are simply means to this end.

Graphics and Other Aids to Report Clarity

Lists and enumerations are common organizing devices used to present parts of reports. Charts, graphs, tables, and other graphic aids can clarify abstract and numerical concepts in reports; they can be prepared by hand, using compasses, protractors, rulers, and other simple tools, or they can be constructed through various photocopying and computer applications.

Most graphic aids share certain characteristics. Graphics used within a report typically have titles which clearly announce their topics, are identified by figure numbers, and frequently indicate the sources of their information. Tables simply put lists of figures into readable formats. Pie charts work well to show how an entire quantity is divided into its various parts (e.g., a breakdown of where a tax dollar goes). Bar graphs are effective for comparing quantities (for example, the number of clients served last year by five different groups of caseworkers), and line graphs are most effective for displaying numbers (such as interest rates) that change over a period time. Flow charts, maps, photographs, and cutaway diagrams are just a few other types of graphic aids that can help clarify reports and proposals.

Presentation programs, such as PowerPoint, can provide an effective means of showing graphics and key ideas for oral reports, and programs of this sort also allow you to incorporate video and sound into your report. However, some presenters tend to simply put an entire presentation into the program and then read aloud, word-for-word, what’s already printed on the slide—a sure way to weaken the presentation and bore the audience.

One simple and relatively low-tech tool in giving oral presentations, the overhead projector, allows you to put graphics (or, for that matter, some key ideas from your notes) onto transparencies and then to project the images from those transparencies onto a screen. It’s also possible to make transparencies of PowerPoint slides as a back-up in case computer problems arise. The transparencies guide you in your presentation, distract less than note cards, and help your audience. The overhead projector is easy to use. Simply place each transparency on a glass plate located over a light source, position the transparency so that you can read it just as if you were reading from a sheet of paper, focus the image (being careful not to block your readers' view of the screen), and speak (resisting the urge to read the transparencies word by word to your audience). You can also, with special equipment, use the overhead projector to project video and computer screen images if computer projection equipment is unavailable.

Proposals and Special Message Types

Proposals are a special kind of persuasive writing. They suggest changes and actions and attempt to convince their readers to follow these suggestions. The characteristics of effect tive persuasive writing are thus important considerations for the writer of a proposal. They often appear in a report format, but can also be presented as letters or memorandums. Typically, proposals suggest ways to solve a problem which exists, to improve a policy or procedure, to answer a question, or to present a benefit from a particular product or service.

They may have been requested, as in the case of a supervisor asking an expert on his staff to propose a new method of accounting for petty cash or a company replying to a "request for proposal" (RFP) from a government agency in hopes of obtaining a contract. Proposals of this sort are termed "solicited proposals." Other proposals (called "unsolicited proposals") are developed at the writer's own initiative in hopes of persuading the reader to act or to accept the proposal's ideas. A sales proposal or a proposal to a university dean advocating changes in campus parking regulations are examples of unsolicited proposals.

While the specific content of proposals will vary, they almost all discuss something happening over a period of time. In other words, most proposals include narration as well as persuasion. For this reason, much of the content of a proposal can be developed in a preparing stage based on the journalistic "5 W's and H" approach. Typical concerns might include the following:
Why should changes be made?
Why is the change an improvement over what exists now?
What problem needs solving?
What needs to be done to solve it?
What specific changes are involved?
What equipment and personnel will be needed?
Who will be in charge of making these changes?
When will work begin and end?
Where will the changes happen?
How, exactly, do you plan to make these changes?
How much will the changes cost?
How will the changes be financed?

Organization of proposals varies with the specific circumstances and with the arranging strategy you wish to use. But most effective proposals move quickly at the beginning, giving an overview of the problem and the solution without providing specific technical details. This opening is then followed by a more detailed discussion in which you may consider the nature of the problem more precisely, explain what you plan to do to solve the problem, and specify exactly how you plan to accomplish the work you propose to do. A concluding section might establish your qualifications to do the work (if this information seems appropriate), point out the reader benefits that will follow, and encourage action, which may simply mean approval of the proposed project. Headings, subheadings, enumerations, and graphics can help guide readers through proposals as they do for reports, and, like reports, proposals can appear in a variety of formats.

Many other types of professional messages share some of these characteristics with reports and proposals; adaptability and effective use of aids to readability make such documents accessible to multiple audiences with widely diverse backgrounds. Policies and procedures, for example, spell out what to do and how to do it in a variety of workplace situations; sick leave policies, chains of command, equal opportunity statements, safety bulletins, and grievance procedures are just a few examples of such documents. Bulletins and announcements are internal documents that, like many reports, are primarily informational; even more than reports, however, these messages reach audiences with disparate backgrounds within the organization. In contrast, press releases and news bulletins convey information to the general public; not only must they be clear to a wide range of readers, but they need to convey the most important information (the "5 W's and H" again) early. While these community and public information documents frequently disseminate information that is routine or persuasive (in sales situations), they can also be the primary means of defusing corporate crises. Clear reporting can make the difference.

Regardless of how letters, memos, reports, and proposals are developed and organized, take time to go through the steps of the PASS method in writing such messages. While formats and structures matter, the quality of your writing makes the biggest difference in the impact that writing will have upon its readers. The writing you do on the job can accomplish its goals more effectively as a result of your concern about and work with those skills.

This material is adapted from Gerald Siegel, Business and Professional Writing: A Guide to the Process, 2nd ed. Dubuque, IA: Kendall-Hunt, 1994.