Chapter 2: Introduction to Form and Style

Chapter Learning Outcomes 

In this chapter you will:

  1. Identify patterns of communication for routine messaging
  2. Analyze elements of business writing style
  3. Describe effective document design

Among the most important skills in communication is to adjust your style according to the audience to meet their needs as well as your own. You would speak differently to a customer or manager compared with how you would to a long-time co-worker who has also become a friend. In each case, these audiences have certain expectations about your style of communication, and you must meet those expectations to be respected and maintain good relations.

This chapter reviews those style choices and focuses especially on the six major characteristics of good writing common to both formal and casual writing. We’ll also review the importance of the direct and indirect approach to business communication (most of you are probably familiar with these patterns if you took a lower-level Professional Communication course in your previous college/university program) and try to understand a little better how these patterns, with their specific style and formatting requirements, can help us to  produce reader-friendly documents.

The Audience: Basic Considerations

If we know a few things about our potential reader, it is fairly easy to adapt the message to our audience. Things can get a little more complicated if

  • we haven’t had any prior contacts with the potential reader;
  • the reader is not an individual, but a group of people (say, a number of people who hold different positions within our organization and might have different needs in terms of the type of information they need, the level of detail, etc.);
  • we have a primary audience (one person or group), but we can expect the message to be read by a secondary audience, as well (a larger group).
The more complex the situation, the more planning we will have to do before we start writing. Let us examine some basic examples of situations in which we would have to vary the type and amount of content depending on the audience.


Context: You are part of a team working on a project for a client. Your immediate superior is your team leader; next in line is the department manager. Let us discuss a few types of messages you might have to write:

  1. When you write a request to another member of the team who might be working on a different part of the project, you would have to
    • provide as many details as possible so that your co-worker can get you exactly what you need
    • motivate your request (explaining why you need what you need by a certain deadline).
    • cc your team leader on the message you send to the other team member, or send another (briefer) message to the team leader notifying him/her of your request.
  2. When your team leader has to prepare a progress report for the department manager, you would have to send your team leader a message detailing your progress on your part of the project. You would have to cover the entire period required and provide detailed information on what has been accomplished & what is left to do. Your team leader will then decide if he/she should include everything or just the main points of your message in the report.
  3. If your team leader asks you to examine the possibility of adding something to the project/ research a certain aspect of the project, you would have to write a fairly detailed message in response, explaining each point by referring to reliable sources of information, etc. If your team leader then asks you to provide that information to the client, too, you would have to write that message in a different way – you might decide to skip technical details the client might not understand and spend more time explaining the benefits of the changes/ additions you recommend. (Aspects that might seem obvious to your team leader might not seem as obvious to the client, depending on his/her knowledge of your field. A client who knows a lot about your field would probably prefer to hear more about the technical details. A client who has little knowledge of the field would probably expect you to focus more on benefits.)

In short, the type of information needed and the level of detail required are always main concerns in terms of content. We need to make the right choice each time, because our position in the organization depends on it:

  • If a team leader expects a detailed message and receives a very short and vague one instead, he/she might conclude that the sender of the message is incompetent, careless, or both.
  • If a client expects a detailed discussion of benefits so he/she can see that the project is worth it and the sender of the message does not explain the benefits persuasively, the client might decide to avoid working with the sender’s organization in the future.

Once we make a decision concerning the type of information needed and the level of detail, we need to decide how to organize that information. and how to phrase our points in the most effective manner.

Tone and Style: Basic Considerations

Because a formal style of writing shows respect for the reader, use standard business English especially your goal is to curry favour with your audience, such as anyone outside your organization, higher than you within your organization, and those on or around your level with whom you have never communicated before. These audiences include managers, customers, clients, B2B suppliers and vendors, regulators, and other interested stakeholders such as government agencies. A cover letter, for instance, will be read by a future potential manager probably unfamiliar to you, so it is a very real test of your ability to write formally—a test that is crucial to your career success. Many common professional document types also require formality such as other letters, memos, reports, proposals, agreements, and contracts. In such cases, you are expected to follow grammatical rules more strictly and make slightly elevated word choices, but not so elevated that you force your reader to look up rarely used words (they will not; they will just make up their mind about you being pretentious and a slight pain to deal with).

Since most of you are fairly young and many employers complain in focus groups that their younger employees tend to be inappropriately informal, we would recommend extra caution in assessing the level of formality required in each situation. If you are slightly more formal than you should have been, you won’t upset anyone — you’d just be perceived as a little inexperienced. However, if you write or act a way that is judged insufficiently formal for the context, you risk being perceived as unprofessional — and that can have major consequences on your future within the organization (you might not be fired, but you certainly won’t be put in charge of any important projects or considered for promotions).

Formatting: Basic Considerations

Depending on how likely the receiver is to accept what you have to say or propose, you have two main options:

  • convey the main idea and the purpose of our message upfront (this would be a direct pattern message) OR
  • provide some explanations first, and then reveal the main idea and the purpose of our message (this would be an indirect pattern message)
Let us discuss these aspects in detail.

Chapter Acknowledgements

This chapter has been adapted from the following text:


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Advanced Professional Communication Copyright © 2021 by Melissa Ashman; Arley Cruthers; eCampusOntario; Ontario Business Faculty; and University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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