Help me think/be more like a Businessy Person
April 26, 2017 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Businessy People communicate in bullet points and actionables. Their focus is always on the bottom line. They're calm and reassuring (because they GTD, and talk clearly and simply about how they're going to do that). I am a million embedded clauses, diversions - complications. I tend to notice nuance instead of the bottom line. Or problems to solve that people may or may not agree exist, Big Picture issues that I may be the only one seeing or caring about. How can I discipline my mind and communication for work?

I used to be able to fake it well enough, when I worked 9-5ish - although even then, I had a tendency to overcomplicate basic processes, and to want them to be executed perfectly instead of adequately and on time (like "deliverables" should be). (Same issue came up at school, all the time, as a matter of fact...)

I think I got by at work in the past because I was indulged by bosses who liked me personally, and were maybe similar in character. (I mostly worked in education, and mostly for other women [not that that should matter, but I feel it does]. Maybe importantly - worked in the education sector in the UK, where e.g. email communications [at least at that time] were maybe a bit more formal than they are here - so e.g. longer sentences weren't completely loathed - and where there's a bit more tolerance for kookiness/goofiness in a work setting, if you know people.)

But I haven't done Businessy work (here) in a long time. I'm applying for jobs and, I guess I'm saying the things I actually think, the way I think them, instead of massaging them into the form and tone I gather (after the fact) would be more appropriate.

Example, in an exercise requested of me in a second round, I made what I thought was a well argued case for X using what I now think might be idiosyncratic or overly flowery language. I think a few buzzwords were probably called for (vs "dehumanization" + my personal theory of why some fundraising approaches work, etc.) - but I don't even know what those might be these days. (Don't know yet if I got that job, suspect not.)

Is there a handy (2017-oriented) resource for learning to communicate clearly, simply, and effectively? Also, something to help me stop focusing on the kinds of things I focus on? Or at least get better at avoiding bringing them up when they shouldn't be brought up? Or at least *notice* when they shouldn't be brought up?

A book might ask for more time than I will probably commit to this, tbh, although if there's a good one that you feel will really help, I'll definitely read it.

I think I come across well enough in interviews - I do get the sense most people like me, on the level of being likeable... I usually feel there's a rapport; I crack the odd joke and interviewers seem to like them - but I'm not sure I'm communicating that I'm actually effective. (I suspect I might be coming across like I'm at a cocktail party instead of at an interview. I think I need to convey more seriousness.)

I may not actually be that effective, which - yeah ok, go ahead and talk about that if it's called for :/ At the same time, I know I'm more effective than some people I've had to have dealings with, I must not be unsalvageable. I will have to fix those deeper issues eventually, but at this point I think I need to focus on how I communicate in a job application process, from the cover letter, through to any exercises, through to interview/s [esp when there are multiple *panel* interviews, for jobs that honestly aren't even that consequential...]).
posted by cotton dress sock to Work & Money (25 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Do you use Gmail? There's a free extension called Boomerang which tells you how "respondable" your emails are. It shows you a rating based on ideal subject length, word count, and reading level. This would be an easy, tangible way to improve!

A more general approach is cultivating empathy. Before sending an emails or other briefs, I always imagine the recipient reading them. What information is she looking for? Is the tone correct? Is there information she doesn't care about?
posted by beyond_pink at 7:04 AM on April 26, 2017 [13 favorites]

I think Toastmasters might be good for this. A good club will support you on your specific goals. You will get feedback from other members and can ask them to be specific as to whether your main points were clear. You will also be informed when you go over time. If you are in the NYC area PM me for suggestions.

In general, if I restrict my word count or time and then revise accordingly, the points I need to prioritize will start to come into focus.
posted by bunderful at 7:24 AM on April 26, 2017 [7 favorites]

I have this problem, to an extent. I like to think big picture, all the time, even when it's not called for. And my emails tend to be really long-winded (although perhaps not as academic/theoretical-sounding as yours).

If possible, I like to write an email and then let it sit, for anywhere from a 5 minute walk around the floor/trip to refill my water to a few hours. And then before I send it I go back and cut, cut, cut. Cut out all extra language, simplify more florid turns of phrase, turn sentences into bullets or numbered lists, and because I'm a woman socialized to soften my language, cut out some of those mushy "might" or "maybe" type words.

Sometimes I fall a little in love with my own ideas/writing, so another thing that helps when I'm cutting things out is to paste what I've removed into a separate document for myself. That way I don't feel like my ideas and the way I've expressed them are lost forever.

Finally, I've found myself a strategy-level job where, while I still have to keep focus on daily tasks at hand, I sometimes am asked and expected to think about big picture effectiveness and develop strategy and that helps a lot!
posted by misskaz at 7:28 AM on April 26, 2017 [12 favorites]

This is a great question, and as a person who thinks linear-ly I have definitely been at the receiving end of this, of trying to reach a conclusion with a colleague who is caught up thinking about nuances, discussing aspects of the topic which are not of pressing urgency, etc. It's not to say these digressions are not not interesting or useful, but it's not what any of us needs to be thinking about at that particular time, so it can get frustrating; not saying that you're frustrating, just that it's great that you're so self-aware as to recognise this as a potential problem.

My advice would be, for when you are speaking, don't 'think aloud'. Think silently. Reach your conclusion. Then say the conclusion. All the thoughts you thought to get you to that conclusion stay in your head. When you're emailing, think of your first drafts as the thoughts you need to think to get you to the conclusion. If you're naturally a word-y, think-y sort of person, it's likely your first drafts will contain a lot of digressions. They're important; you need to think these thoughts to get to your destination. But the thoughts do not require an audience.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:30 AM on April 26, 2017 [18 favorites]

Just ask yourself: what does a busy person who doesn't give a shit about details and has only 5 seconds to read your email NEED to know.

That is too say: Present conclusions only (not process by which you arrived at that conclusion). If they care about process by which you arrived at that conclusion, they will ask. But it's best they don't ask. They hired you because they know you can execute good processes. They have confidence in your judgement already. If they have to dig into the process that means something went wrong (they don't like the conclusion or don't trust your judgement).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:32 AM on April 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

I heartily second the Toastmasters recommendation. In addition to helping you become more concise in your speech, the club will make sure you expunge non-words like "actionable" and "deliverables" from your vocabulary.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:48 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

The five sentences idea might work for you, especially to practise writing shorter: although I disagree with the idea of it being a strict rule.

The old principles still work - omit needless words. I find it really helps to read my emails and prune ruthlessly.

One tip that worked well for me was cutting out all variants on "I think" - of course you think it, that's why you're writing it, there's no need to explicitly say that.
posted by curious_yellow at 7:51 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Sorry - I thought I needed to use words like "actionables" and "deliverables" (I don't, normally, can't stand them)! This is wrong? Isn't there a bit of currency in judicious use of buzzwords? Doesn't it help give the impression that you're, idk, roughly acclimated to that culture? (Also - fantastic answers, everyone, very useful! Thank you so much!)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:53 AM on April 26, 2017

^yes! "I think" is unnecessary, as is:

I feel
With that said...
Having said that....
Without further ado
There can be no doubt that
I'd like to extend my thanks
I welcome the opportunity to

"I feel" is especially egregious. A gerbil can feel.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:56 AM on April 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just want to remind you not to compare your insides to other people's outsides. I have faked this kind of business-likery before, all the while terrified that I was an enormous fraud and that at any second some thread would come loose and I would be revealed as a flake before all. In addition to the great advice above, I suggest you think of staying mindful, thinking of this as a game you're playing (along with the rest of the office-going world), rather than a person that you're failing to be.

More practically, St. Peepsburg is right about shortening your communications with busy people. Busy people, unconsciously or consciously, look at your email or listen to your words with an ear out for an excuse to not deal with this right now -- to put it off to a less hurried time which may or may not ever come. You need to get their attention, get in and get out, conveying something like the following in the fewest words: I need you to know/do this, because this is what's going on, and this is how I am going to handle it for you.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:57 AM on April 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

Cotton dress sock, using those words isn't currency, it merely reinforces the use of them. By not using them, you show you've got the gist of it without resorting to managerspeak.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:58 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

(Last comment, re "I feel" - so that was a habit I picked up through some of my UK jobs [in the non-profit/educational sector, mostly working with other women...] There was often a very democratic approach to group decision-making; almost no one seemed to feel comfortable being overly presumptious about assertions. I grew to be self-conscious about saying things more baldly, and deliberately worked to include hedges more often. Time to get rid of them, agree.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:01 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

Okay, so clear business communication is a big part of my job, and I am a person who, in my natural state, talks in compound-complex sentences and meandering digression like I think I'm Charles Dickens, so I feel you. That said, here are some tips:

1) Don't try to add jargon to your speech. Familiarize yourself with the jargon of your industry so you'll know what people are talking about, but don't try to pick it up yourself. Take a look at the resources at for more on this.
2) Give yourself time to draft and then revise, especially at first. Once you've written the whole story from beginning to end, extract the meat and the action items and use THAT as your actual email or talking points.
3) Put the "ask" up front. Ask yourself what you want the recipient of your email to DO - send you a copy of a report? Run some numbers? Submit an abstract? That's the first sentence of your email.
4) Work to get rid of hedging and softening language as a rule, though pay attention to the times when you may want to strategically deploy softening language (for instance, someone you work with who you know will get offended if you don't have a "how are you?" somewhere in there.)
5) Realize that this kind of communication is a learned skill and practice it. Write concise and actionable book club emails or knit night invitations or holiday letters. As you build the skill, it will be another tool in your communication toolbox.
6) To deal with all the nuances or contingencies that you see but the bottom-liners don't need, practice summarizing them, too. These might become a section or bulleted list called something like "risks" or "potential issues" or "contingencies", and it doesn't hurt to have them in your back pocket as talking points or supplemental material.
7) Getting rid of the "I feel" or "I think" - try to use some of your REASONS why you feel or think the thing as your framing. So instead of "I feel like we should have a potluck for the office party" you could say "When we've gone to a restaurant for previous parties, some staff have been concerned with the cost. A potluck would allow each person to contribute what they can afford." Can be useful for nuances as well - if you've summarized your nuance digression to the bottom line. Don't talk for five minutes about the potential ramifications, say "I'm concerned that the strained relationship between the Lollipop Guild and the Lullabye League may cause conflict. Is it possible to put their booths in different parts of the fair?"
8) It's always fine to say "I need to pull some resources together/do a little research/check my records to answer that. Can I get back to you with the answer tomorrow/on the fifteenth/by noon?"
9) a good rule of thumb I use is Don't start the story with "once upon a time," start with "They lived happily ever after."

Hope this is helpful!
posted by oblique red at 8:52 AM on April 26, 2017 [16 favorites]

Isn't there a bit of currency in judicious use of buzzwords? Doesn't it help give the impression that you're, idk, roughly acclimated to that culture?

Those particular ones - actionable and deliverables - aren't all that egregious as these words go. Think of buzzword use like hot chili pepper - a little bit can be good, but overuse will bother people.
posted by theorique at 9:18 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I highly recommend Josh Bernoff's Writing Without Bullshit.
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:21 AM on April 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to research "how to write a briefing note". This is a tool we use in government to distill issues and communicate up the hierarchy when decisions or actions are required.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 9:29 AM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Jargon is useful when it lets you capture a complicated concept under a simple label.

Don't just insert the word "actionable" into your writing wherever you think it might fit. But if you catch yourself writing something like
I'm worried this discussion isn't a productive one to be having right now. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me like the outcome of the discussion isn't going to have any practical effect on what we do next, because any steps we might take as a result of it are blocked by other constraints. Specifically, X is blocked by A, and Y is blocked by B and C, and I don't see any possible responses besides X and Y. Does that seem right to you?
then you'll be doing yourself and your readers a huge favor by cutting that down to
Is this even actionable right now?
When you use jargon in this way, you let your reader or listener decide how much nuance they want. Possible responses to "is this even actionable?" include "Yeah, you're right, it's not, let's set this aside" and "It totally is and here's why," but they also include "Can you say more about why you think it isn't actionable?" and other information-seeking questions like that. If they ask for more information, then you can give them the paragraph you originally wrote.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:41 AM on April 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

I grew to be self-conscious about saying things more baldly, and deliberately worked to include hedges more often. Time to get rid of them, agree

Now and then it's useful to soften statements but if you must, do it with "I think" rather than "I feel."

nothing makes me angrier at myself than having slipped into "feel" for "think" in the last few years, mostly because I never used to do it, I was always conscious of the gendered convention and resisted it, and it happened anyway. I think it's not even so bad to be considerate and conciliatory as it is to get conditioned into expressing logical reasoning and considered opinions as mere feelings and instincts. but it is so hard not to even when you can tell it's happening. I feel -- feel! -- so strongly about this that I am probably overstating it, but I think that this habit encourages people to offer women acknowledgement and validation, but not obedience and not respect. because it lets them pretend that's what women are after. even in a business setting.

if you don't have businessperson instincts, there's also something to be said for talking in standard essay format -- not because it's good to talk too much, but because the old thesis statement - exposition - restatement of thesis for every goddamn paragraph that makes people hate grading papers is something that can work well orally if you know you're prone to going into nuances and digressions.

this kind of structure comes naturally to the liberally educated mind: first tell them what to think, pause, then tell them why they should think it, then remind them of what they think. But start with the conclusion so that they're alert and curious to hear the explanation.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:28 AM on April 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

One thing that I've been overcoming is the sense that everybody needs all the information so that they can decide for themselves. Part of being "businessy" is taking responsibility for a decision (or even just for your own opinion). In many circumstances it's not about convincing somebody that you're correct, they often don't care about the reasoning that went into it, they just want the answer, and you don't have to prove that you're right, their baseline assumption in asking was that you'll figure it out better than they could.

For me, it feels really disappointing to work for several days figuring out all the pros and cons and running calculations as to whether this would work out with this much money and that many widgets, and then to send a single email to an important person that just says "According to calculations, X will be the best solution, under conditions a, b. Happy to provide background if needed." I feel that I'm not demonstrating my brilliance, after all I did 2 days of work to get this answer!! And conditions a,b leave out exceptions d,e,f which are minor details and pretty much excluded by the fact that I said a and b, but maybe i should explain that it doesn't work under d and f is pretty marginal but not likely to happen especially in the presence of c... or I could just give them the answer relevant to them, which is what they want.

Part of it is based on the idea that I am the expert on my thing, and the goal is for me to be a resource, not in fact to teach my colleagues enough that they can understand everything and answer the question for themselves next time based on the way I meticulously explained it in my emails. Next time, they will come to me and I will answer their question.
posted by aimedwander at 11:49 AM on April 26, 2017 [12 favorites]

I used to be a journalist and then I got my MBA and was appalled that none of my classmates could write a paper with actual sentences and whole paragraphs; instead they only thought in powerpoints and bullet points. But now I get it and have drunk the koolaid for work situations. It's hard as someone who likes to write - and who loves the nuances and the parentheticals and the holistic interconnections, as I can see you (and I!) do - but it would help if you train yourself to ruthlessly think two ways - both are ways of trying to distill most important from secondarily important / unimportant.

- In BUCKETS - meaning that you have maybe twelve things you think you want to communicate. But really, you have to think about how you have three, at most four, categories that those twelve items fit into - say, "THINGS WE KNOW / THINGS WE SHOULD DO / RISKS WE FACE" or "STARTUP COSTS / ONGOING COSTS / OPPORTUNITIES TO NEGOTIATE" or whatever - and bucket your smaller points into these categories. I am now firmly of the belief that you can combine everything into fewer buckets, and most communications that would take five paragraphs can be condensed into an intro sentence, three buckets, and a next step as a closing. You could try bucketing everything and seeing if you can boil things down into fewer categories of thoughts.

- In POST-IT NOTES - I do this mentally; I have a colleague who does this physically. Instead of writing out a long email, she has stacks and stacks of post-it notes, and when preparing a presentation or a communication, she drafts in post-its and a fat pen first. The headline all has to fit on the post-it, or it's too long-winded. And it has to rise to the level of being worth putting on a post-it - otherwise it's too detailed and second-level, not top-line. You could try as post-it-ing as an exercise to get yourself to trim your own thoughts down to the essence.
posted by sestaaak at 2:02 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's a terrible thing to be all analyzing and meandering and nuance and feelings and brainstorming. In fact, that's a super-valuable thing. It's just that there's a time for that, and there's a time to turn all that discussion into a plan and do something.

One thing that helped me do that, surprisingly enough, was take a writing class. Plain old English Comp. If I can write a basic college essay about my plan, with thesis ("Plan A is the best option"), citations, supporting justification that acknowledges drawbacks, and evidence of advantages, I'm there. It seems like once I've convinced myself by writing it down, that's the hard part and all the wandering, talking in circles, and self-doubt stops. We actually have a saying, "If you can't write it down, you don't understand it." I disagree that people only want the bottom line. They also want to know why, and that you've thought it through, so they can trust you. But at this point they don't want to follow your Billy-in-the-Family-Circus dotted line to get there; they want a coherent and convincing straight line to the end. Don't worry about explaining unlikely edge cases unless they represent a real unacceptable risk.

Then it's just a simple matter of turning "Goal" into step 1, 2, 3, and then substep 1a, 1b, 1c, etc., until you're left with simple tasks with verbs. Put names and due dates. Go.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, that doesn't mean giving up the non-directed brainstorming and exploring discussions. Just recognize when you're not learning anything new, cut it off, make a decision, and do something. I think that's what most people mean when they call people "businesslike." The willingness to think like that, to turn "we could" into action items and get started, shows.
posted by ctmf at 7:48 PM on April 26, 2017 [3 favorites]

Putting the ask up front is transformative, and is often hard to do because people often instinctively want to hedge and soften and sneak up on it.
But, when you're sending a work-related email task one is to get something done, so lead with it.
Add the pleasantries after.
This sounds heartless, but it isn't. Getting to the point straight out the gate is doing a favour to your recipient.

On softening language.
I have an extension called "Just Not Sorry" which underlines all the Justs and Sorrys and I Thinks and I Feels and suggests why you may wish to rephrase.
I did not realise just how much hedging and softening I wrote until I used it.
Here is an article suggesting that this is a male/female communication style divide and shouldn't be quashed. That is not the case from my perspective, but it's a viewpoint to consider.

On Buzzwords.
Deliverable is fine, surely. It means I have a thing I gotta send out.
Might be a report, might be a graph or an analysis or something, but it's an agreed thing to be delivered.
But don't get bogged down with that. I'd try hard not to use buzzwords or jargon just for the sake of it, or to fit in. But some words got invented because they're useful.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:36 AM on April 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here's a bit more from the developer of Just Not Sorry.
There's also some interesting discussion surrounding the extension in regards to communication styles and feminism.
posted by Just this guy, y'know at 4:40 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I have this same problem and feel anxious when I do leave our the "background" info - because what if they need it to understand what and why we are doing? And sometimes an elided background detail does become crucial later on, in a problem that could have been avoided. So it's hard.

When I think that supporting data is crucial, I do this:

Subject: clear and short phrase to convey what it is, who needs to pay attention, and when it is due/relevant

Body: Quick salutation and then the important conclusions. Bullet points if there are more than two. Action items needed thereof.

Then I will digress, with a clear transition like "this information is how we came to our conclusion..."

That way skimmers get what the need immediately and can ignore the rest. The super-interested have all your notes.

This is great for email and documents. It also works for conversation: go straight to the conclusions, then provide your philosophies in a follow-up if requested.

Also: sometimes in a conversation you don't know your conclusions until you hash it out or talk it through. That's okay! Providing that fact in a verbal acknowledgement up front allows people to tune out or jump in as needed.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon at 9:54 AM on April 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

I think this is more than what you're looking for but you might still enjoy perusing some of the documents compiled here by the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals. Some of the government papers in particular are step-by-step instructions on how to be a CIA agent i.e. how to systematically work through a problem, organize your thoughts, and effectively deliver your results to very busy people.
posted by yeahlikethat at 11:35 AM on April 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

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