When Writing to Americans, Get to the Point

Yvonne Burton, Business Editor

Today we have a guest writer, Liz Danziger of Worktalk, whose motto is “Better Writing. Better Business.”

I attended Liz’s webinar on “Three Ways to Overcome the Organizational Costs of Poor Writing” that provided simple steps that individuals can take to improve their written communications.

Did you know research estimates that poor writing costs businesses up to $400 billion annually?

I was very excited when Liz offered to write an article for us. Her piece takes a look at the difference in writing styles between Americans and Japanese and how to write to get your point across.

When Writing to Americans, Get to the Point

By Elizabeth Danziger

My college Japanese professor explained that Japanese and American communication styles vary because of geographical differences. “Japan is an island nation where people live very close to each other,” she said. “If people get upset with each other, they cannot raise their voices, or someone may hear them through the thin walls.” By comparison, she noted that in the early days of America, “If someone got angry with his neighbor, he could just move 100 miles away.”

While Japanese walls are thicker and American homes are closer together than in the past, some vestiges remain of the traditional mode of Japanese communication and the Wild-West openness of Americans.

The Japanese language is rich with nuance and subtlety. It evolved in a relatively homogeneous culture that allowed countless unspoken assumptions to be shared. Indirectness and ambiguity increase the harmony of Japanese relationships.

By contrast, American English is bold and direct, often lacking the fine distinctions that mark Japanese. As a nation of immigrants, America does not have a homogenous population. As a result, people often feel that they must “spell things out” explicitly for their listeners or readers to understand them.

Both the Japanese and the American modes of communication have strengths. Problems may arise, however, when Japanese and American writers try to communicate with each other. The naturally reticent Japanese individual may inadvertently frustrate his American counterpart by not getting to the point.

Americans Are “Get-to-the-Point” People

Americans are impatient people. They want to understand now, get results now, and move on to their next activity. Of course, we can debate the benefits and drawbacks of this attitude, but the fact remains that most Americans are what I describe in my book on business writing as “get-to-the-point people.” My book is titled Get to the Point: Painless Advice for Writing Memos, Letters, and Emails Your Colleagues and Clients Will Understand. Published by Random House in 2001, it is taught at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School. In the book, I advise writers to—you guessed it—get to the point of their documents within the first 40 words.

Japanese writers of American English may feel uncomfortable with this approach. Getting straight to the point strikes them as blunt or rude, and they are wary of giving offense. However, being too indirect can backfire. Too much roundabout language or ambiguity leaves many Americans tapping their fingers restlessly as they await the main point.

Tips for Communicating with an American Audience

Here are three ways to communicate more effectively with an American audience:

1.     Remember the acronym BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front

Know your main point before you begin to write. Begin with a pleasant comment or greeting and then express your idea or make your request within the first 40 words of the document. This principle is especially relevant to emails.

2.     If you are persuading, start with a benefit or a cost

If you wish to influence your readers, start by sharing a way that they will benefit from agreeing with you or a negative result that will come from not following your advice. From there, you can introduce your main point or request.

3.     Be concise

Too many words can blur your meaning for an American audience (or for any audience!). This idea does not mean that every statement should be curt and choppy; it means that every word in your document should be there for a reason.

People are People, Regardless of Nationality

Whether individuals are Japanese or American, they want to connect with other people. Some of us do this by being indirect, others by being concise and direct. But we all have similar goals: to do business with others who are honest, fair, and open-minded. By getting straight to the point when writing to your American counterparts, you will give them the sense that you are “their kind of people.”

About Liz and Worktalk

Worktalk prepares teams to write clearly and concisely amid the pressures of constant communication. Our webinars, presentations, and coaching sessions equip individuals to increase their influence and avoid embarrassing errors as they use words to create success. To receive Writamins monthly writing tips, go to www.worktalk.com. You can reach Elizabeth Danziger at lizd@worktalk.com.

Yvonne Burton provides services to Japanese firms operating internationally and companies operating in the Japanese market. To learn more, please visit burtonconsulting.biz.