Principles of Effective Messages: Organization, Design, and Content

Principles of Effective Messages: Organization, Design, and Content


  • Good writing meets five reader needs
  • Graphic: strategy and tactics for organizing messages


1.          Immediate insight into requirements of reader, that is, readers are able to understand what they are required to do with the document by the time they read the subject line, the first verb, and the opening section.


  • Writing extremely clear, concise Subject Lines.
  • Using very clear first verbs.  These should allow the reader to know which of four ways to react to the document:  is the reader being asked to supply information?; is information being presented to inform the reader?; are hypotheses being tested and data analyzed and evaluated?; is a proposal being made requiring the reader’s approval?
  • Composing a first paragraph that accurately summarizes the topic covered and why it is important.  To be an accurate summary, it should answer the WHAT, WHY, WHEN, and other questions needed for a clear introduction to the document.

2.          Instant retrievability, the ability to find any topic or data the reader wishes to find through scanning, without having to read the entire document.


             Headings, Lists, Underlining, Boldface, Indenting, Introductory Forecasts, Clearly Labelled Tables, Easy-to-find Data.

3.          Easy comprehensibility, the ability of the reader to read a document once and gain an accurate understanding of it.

             Criteria:  reader must be able to understand document in a single reading.  If at any time the reader has to re-read information, it indicates the material could be more effectively organized.


  • Providing clear BACKGROUND, which reminds reader of antecedents and provides linkages with the last information the reader received on this subject.
  • Writing paragraphs deductively, in WHAT, WHY, DETAILS order.
  •  4.   Clear understanding of and ability to check whether the writer is making a logical argument.
  • Toplining Whats and often Whys, in sequentially and topically organized documents, followed by Details.
  • Toplining Whys in singularly focussed analysis and recommendation messages.
  • Toplining What and Whys in multi-topic analysis or recommendation messages.
  • Phrasing so that toplines develop a logical theme when scanned.
  • Using “good facts” to support arguments empirically.

5.          Documents show a clear understanding of the strategic requirements of author’s department, division, and overall organization.

Writing messages that show:

  • compelling benefits, such as increased share, volume, and profit; increased safety, reliability, security, or productivity; improved employee morale, or customer and consumer satisfaction.
  • a thoughtful risk assessment, a concise, yet well-researched evaluation of potential constraints.
  • alignment, a clear connection between the writer’s stated purpose and department, division, and company objectives.
  • consistency and constancy, an intent that is clear over time, which will result in a sustainable advantage.
  • core competency, a strategy that leverages resources to achieve goals, especially by using core competencies that reflect current and historical strengths.
  • customer and consumer focus, a perspective that shows a clear understanding of customer and consumer requirements.


  What readers want at
each stage
How to accomplish this  
OPENING* Answers to 4 questions What is the point? What is the relevance to the com-pany? Should I read the whole message now or lat- er? Will this be an easy or a difficult document to mwhich to respond? Compose a precise subject line Make opening a concise summary of entire document that accurately predicts its content, including the What, the Why, and the When
Forecast body and next steps in
longer documents
BACKGROUND         Brief description of histor- ical context from which this topic emerged   Provide key facts that clarify why the document is being written now Summarize previous docu- ments on this topic
METHOD Clear description of methods List steps in chronological order
BODY * Easily scanned argument Clear hierarchy of ideas   Effectively used headings as “table of contents” of message
DATA ANALYSIS Sound argument and evi- dence to document claims Consistency among object-ives conclusions reasons, evidence, follow-up, and action steps   Number and underline key pre- mises Deductively order para- graphs Consistently clarify the Why Ensure arguments pass the “Because, Based On, Therefore” test Align with objectives & actions Indent to indicate higher level and lower level points
DISCUS SION   Answers to 2 questions: What constraints exist? What alternatives are there?   Explain constraints, risks List alternatives, explain why not chosen  
FOLLOW-UP   How will this be implemented?   Clarify the How, typically in list format
ACTION *  required element Answers to 4 questions: What do you want me to do? What are you going to do? What should others do? When will these ac- tions take place? Clarify the Who does What, When and Why questions Consistent with objectives and analysis  

tclark administrator

Thomas Clark, PhD, President of CommuniSkills and Professor of Management at Xavier University, has been a writing and oral communication consultant for a wide variety of businesses including Procter & Gamble, “the business writing capital of the world,” where he has led over 500 business communication workshops. He has also taught workshops for other Fortune 500 companies, including General Electric, Microsoft, Nestle, AK Steel, General Cable, Mars Petcare and Kellogg. He has published three books on business communication and one on career strategies. He has been honored with two Teacher of the Year awards at Xavier, and The US Small Business Administration has recognized him with three national awards for teaching excellence in the field of entrepreneurship. He earned his doctorate at Indiana University and is certified as an instructor in both Crucial Conversations and Crucial Accountability. Richard Zaunbrecher, BChE, MBARichard Zaunbrecher, BSChE, MBA, Vice President and Director of Communiskills’ Boston office, has a diverse background that allows him to understand and give constructive feedback on a broad range of business communication issues. He first learned sound business communication principles at Procter & Gamble, the business communication capital of the world. He has worked with CommuniSkills for 25 years and has taught both oral and written communication skills to a variety of businesses including Microsoft, Safeway, P&G dos Brazil, Gillette, AliCorp, Credit Suisse First Boston, Coca-Cola, Citibank, Viacom, Clorox, KPMG, General Electric, Union Central Insurance, Clarica, Allstate, and Prudential Insurance.

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