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Strategic Business Writing: 10 Power Tips when Writing to your CEO

  • clarity

I have been receiving this feedback from HR leaders: CEOs are struggling with reading the emails and reports from their management staff, the ranks of Vice Presidents, Assistant Vice Presidents and even their one level down C-suite executives.

We would assume that the more senior you are, the better you are or should be in your business writing. Not true.

Here are the reasons why: 

1.Business issues are getting more complex. Business writing is no longer about communicating content but communicating complexity in a simple-to-understand manner.

However, the more senior you are, you may find it harder to see things from a fresh and clear perspective. You get lost in the details. You tend to want to cover all grounds. And end up losing the business insight. 

2. The CEO reader does not have the time to read (or re-read). They have too many emails and reports to read. They read from the smartphone and on the go.

They are not reading line by line but scrolling for that key idea, key message or action required.

3. Senior management staff often write from the perspective of their function or objective but not from the CEO’s perspective – what he/she needs to know, need not know and need to decide on.

To write to your CEO requires strategic thinking and writing. Use this checklist to transform the way you write to your CEO and get your point across:

1. Keep it short: Do not write long and convoluted email and reports. Anything more than 2 pages should be trashed. Just kidding. What you need to do is to REORGANISE.

Reorganise the contents into the main email (what CEO needs to know) and the attachment (what CEO may want to know or know later).

For reports, put what the CEO needs to know in the main report – which should be only one to two pages. What the CEO may want to know or know later goes to the Appendix.

2. Include the objective: There must be an objective or rationale. And it is clear and written in not more than 1-3 sentences.

3. Provide the context: Business changes day by day. The CEO cannot remember everything that has gone on. Provide a one-liner context in your email to tell him or her what your email is about or if the situation has changed.

4. Sift out the business impact: If it is an item that trails over multiple email threads, do not expect the CEO to read through it all. Your message at the top of the email thread should summarise the key points, update on the most relevant status or highlight the essential business impact.

5. State what you need: Be clear and upfront about what you expect from your CEO: Is it for information, approval or feedback? For example, say right at the start:

This is for your approval.

Do not make them read through paragraphs of information to figure out what they have to do. This will frustrate the CEO reader immensely.

6. Communicate “For Information” thoughtfully: Emails or reports tagged as “For Information” do not mean that you can happily load on the contents. Ask yourself: what is the most important information. The rest should be removed or reorganised.

7. Use key-word highlights: The CEO reader scrolls quickly. Do not expect them to read line by line to get your message. Bold your key-words: only 2-3 words and nothing more.

8. Organise with numbers: Numbering (1, 2, 3) and sub-numbering (1a, 1b, 1c) is critical when you write to the CEO. This allows for easy follow-up communication in subsequent emails, phone calls or conference calls.

Numbering also communicates your flow of thought. So organise your thoughts and number them before you click Send.

9. Title it intelligently: Pay attention to titles: subject titles of your emails; titles of your reports. Keep the titles specific, concise and useful.

Ensure that the title reflects the content. I have read many reports written and vetted by senior management and submitted to their CEO and there is a mismatch of title and contents. Reflects your team’s lack of effort and thinking. 

10. Coach your staff: Lastly, as the senior management, you may not be the one who is writing the report. It may be your staff. Do not leave the job of writing and thinking entirely to your staff. Coach them to write from the CEO’s perspective and the business perspective. That is your value-add. Remember that if the report comes through you, it is from you.

Writing to your CEO is not simply writing. It is writing to provide clarity about the business so as to drive good business decisions. 

This article is written by Michelle Lim, Principal Trainer of Clarity Training and Consulting. Click here to find out more about our business communication training. If you are looking for Trainer certification in business communication, click here.