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How not to write business correspondence

In law school, we often had "issue-spotting" tests. We'd get a short story, usually about half a page long, describing a situation. The exam question would be simply: "What issues does this raise, and how would you advise this client?" Cue an hour of feverish writing and flipping through statute books. Then kick yourself when you get the paper back and see what you missed.

A business email should never seem like an issue-spotting exam. If you're organizing a major conference with a thousand participants across 25 organizations, or even if you're just advising a colleague about a minor matter, write clear, concise prose that leads with and emphasizes the most important information. And if, despite your best efforts, more than half of the people to whom you sent an important deadline to miss it, it's your fault, not theirs.

What follows is a synthesis of the two emails a meeting organizer sent to dozens of people relating to an upcoming industry conference. I've changed details and names for anonymity, but where possible I have included exactly what the organizer wrote. Also, it's OK to skip ahead; most of us did, after all.

(And yes, they use the same subject line, in exactly this form, on every email.)

From: CJ Smith
To: [60 people who don't know each other]
CC: [2 of the people already on the list]
Date: Sun 7 Nov 2021 18:00
Subject: CJ Smith - Big Meeting

Evening all. Here is your 6 November sent on 7 November (ouch...). I'll try and do better next time. BTW - fall has exploded in the Chicago area...strange there isn't snow falling! But I found out that the two [mediocre college name] interns I supervised had multiple job offers...not sure if that bodes well or not for the industry BUT it is great for these kids!

Attached are two attachments—a rather lengthy document which, at some length, explains yet another hoop we all will need to jump through prior to the big meeting. The information asked for allows the meeting venue, the organization, and the City of Chicago to fulfill obligations and mandates to the Covid pandemic we are all still going through. Yes, it will take a little coordination and time with your charges (aha - that's what group leaders are for!) but will save huge amounts of time upon your arrival in Chicago if time frames are followed.

There are 3 other points of information within this email.

1. Registration
2. Hotel Accommodation
3. A/V setup requirements

1. Registration. Everyone associated with the big meeting needs to be a registered attendee - including every presenter. Concerns/questions should be directed to [person not copied on email], meeting guru!

2. Hotel Accommodation. Hmm, this is actually a tricky question to answer and here's why. Upon your arrival at the venue (for A/V setup and/or presentation), you will have a specific point to meet your guide. If you're arriving by bus, this will be a different location than if you are walking over from one of two 'meeting' hotels. If you are staying elsewhere - in the suburbs or at your Alumni Association's frat house (if that's the case, save a beverage for me) your travel time will vary. The 'meeting' hotels, Days Inn and Le Meridien Hôtel Incroyablement Cher, are both within a few minutes walk of the venue.


The meeting hotel is the Days Inn . The rate is $100.
The Meridien across the street is also a conference hotel at $1499.

[Hotel addresses and booking contact info redacted.]

3. A/V setup. For me and the venue, this is of utmost importance in accommodating you and your team. The guides will have you at the right place at the right time. My stage crew and I want to make your physical setting as comfortable as you set up (as comfortable as you can be in front of a 1500 seat auditorium...sorry, had to throw that in!). Thus, I've attached two A/V setup diagrams for you to peruse (jpg's for conversation and a pdf...well, you'll understand shortly).

All presenters will enter from the left side of the podium from the audience's perspective, so the right side of the podium if you're facing the audience. There is a screen behind the podium to the left (we are planning on a 4x6 foot screen). The screen, once set Tuesday, 18 January @ noon will not move until moved Thursday, 20 January @ 3:00 PM. There will be sufficient room between the podium and the audience for small practical demonstrations and the various dancing bear ensembles accompanying one of the more 'adventurous' teams. The podium will also not move once set. EVERYTHING else will depend on your staging.


No worries. This is an initial A/V setup. You can/may change your setup up until Wednesday, 11 January (pro tip - I'm going to be in Italy on 11 January - any major changes should happen prior to that!)

So, take some time, think through your presentation and do the following (better yet, ask an assistant or some 5 year old granddaughter already tells me to 'hand it over, old man'...:

  1. Print out the attachment. Make 3 copies. Hand draw in the following:
  2. If you're using a table, put that in first (which direction do you want it facing to?)
  3. Speaker podium? Or no speaker podium?
  4. Speaker document stand?
  5. Additional chairs, easels, espresso machine...

Take that copy and pin it to your bulletin board. Have your receptionist check it out. Next week, redraw it back up. When you're satisfied, scan, look it over once more and then send as a pdf attachment to me. No drawing programs, please, I'm fairly computer literate (hey, I used Finale 1.0 - that was a nightmare) but don't want to scramble finding a program to open your attachment.


Having arranged these big meetings for some 8 years (10?), I only had to tell a presenter 'no' once during a soundcheck - buy me a beer and I'll mention what it was concerned with...My crew said they could do it, but NO...put it on your worksheet or A/V setup form.

I'm seeing two plays downtown Chicago this week and will be house managing at the venue for an unrelated Big Meeting (with Nerdly McSnood talking) Saturday. I'll keep you in the loop on Covid protocols and procedures. It's going to be alright, people.

Lots of information but all necessary. Send me your questions and concerns - I'm a key stroke away...

Now to go find that merlot...

Like most people, you may not have read that whole thing. So like me, you might have felt confused by the organizer's email on December 2nd demanding to know why no one had sent them preliminary copies of their A/V setups.

They did include two attachments, as threatened: a form and a letter. From the form's title, "Venue-Organization Attestation Form - Fillable.pdf", I could infer that the venue wants everyone attending the big meeting to fill out an attestation of some kind. From the letter's title, "6 November, 2021 - Google Docs.pdf", I could infer that the organizer spent no time on organizing this particular email, which led to some concern about their ability to organize a multi-day business meeting.

The letter turned out to contain three pages of text expanding on the content of the email. So let's review: the organizer had the time draft a separate letter, save it to Google Docs, export it to PDF, and attach it to an already lengthy email, but didn't have time to edit either the letter or email, let alone give the letter a  concise, meaningful name.

The letter contained the following paragraphs, with quoted passages copied verbatim. I have changed some irrelevant details for anonymity, while leaving them in for color.

  1. It rained, and the organizer's lawnmower won't start. No, really, they opened with a paragraph on the weather and broken lawn implements.
  2. "6 more weeks until Big Meeting week. Time is fleeting. On a personal note, the next six weeks includes taking a colleague in for more heart surgery (the ole pig valve is wearing out), ANOTHER crown, visiting a relative in Dubuque, flying to NYC to see the MET (La Boheme - again….) and hang with a nephew as he attends [pretty good university], attend our monthly county retired [professionals in industry] coffee (35 and growing each year), visiting St Louis, hang with a college roommate in Ferrara, Italy, and all leading to the Big Meeting in Chicago (yeah, yeah, I know how fortunate I am). Of course, COVID…"
  3. "Which brings me to this letter" repeated twice with more personal information about the organizer in between. The paragraph contained no data on the topic of the letter, only on its existence.
  4. "Here's what I know." That's the entire paragraph, in all its sad irony.
  5. Everyone must show proof of vaccination to attend the Big Meeting. "The rest of this letter explains" what that means.
  6. "* a caveat!" Presenters don't have to wear masks while presenting. There is no preceding asterisk, nor does this seem in any way cautionary.
  7. Later in the letter, there will be due dates and a timetable. The due dates and timetable are not in this paragraph, however.
  8. "Thanks in advance!"
  9. Bullet point 1: 12 lines of text explaining that how to fill out the attached form.
  10. Bullet point 2: 4 lines of text explaining what to do with the form; i.e., give it to someone, with copies of your vax card and ID.
  11. Bullet point 3: 5 lines of text explaining a complicated Google Drive folder structure with a "Google Document spreadsheet" to keep track of the uploaded forms that the organizer intends to have ready for uploads within a week.
  12. The deadline for uploading the forms is 4 weeks before the meeting, or else you'll have to show paper forms at registration. (Having worked with the venue many times, I know that they require the forms 7 days ahead of the event. I infer that the three-week buffer is for the organizer's convenience.)
  13. "We are living through unprecedented times. These are several additional hoops to jump through that none of us envisioned 2 years ago when your big meeting preparation began." This paragraph goes out to everyone who just woke up after a 22-month nap and wonders why the venue requires vaccinations.
  14. The safety process is a good thing because it keeps us safe.
  15. Everyone on your team will get color-coded wristbands so they can attend other presentations. As the letter provides no other information about wristbands, and the organizer provided no other context, this confused me. Either this is so obvious that it doesn't bear mentioning, or so vital that it needs its own email. I fail to see a middle ground.
  16. The organizer will send a copy of everything you uploaded or sent during the pre-registration so you can look at it again. One assumes we'll still have access to the Google folder containing our documents, so...why? Also, our team has a lot of people, so I hope the organizer doesn't try to attach every single document we sent to one email.
  17. The organizer is excited to hear the presentations.
  18. "Now...out to fix the lawnmower..."

Five pages of text. Five pages to say nothing more than this:

From: David Braverman
To: [My institutional email address]
CC: [Co-organizer], [Other useful person everyone should know]
BCC: [Everyone else]
Date: Sun 7 Nov 2021 18:00
Subject: Big Meeting important dates and Covid form - Action required

Hi, everyone! The big meeting is coming up fast, so I wanted to make sure you all had these important documents and deadlines in one place:

  1. December 1st: Initial A/V setup due. Please send me your initial A/V setup plan (here's a sample [link]). This will help the venue get the correct equipment and room layout for your presentation.
  2. January 11th: Final A/V setup dueAfter this deadline, changes will be difficult or impossible. See the sample plan for more details and tips. [Optional, humanizing bit: "I know this seems a bit ridiculous as most of you will have the same setup, but the venue needs it for staffing. I got us the latest deadline they would give me."]
  3. January 21st: Covid forms due. The venue requires this Covid attestation [link] for everyone attending the meeting. Please have everyone on your team fill out the attached form, and upload the forms to this Google folder [link]. The attestation form has important information about Covid protocols at the venue. In summary, you must be fully vaccinated, and you must wear a mask at all times at the venue unless you're presenting.
  4. Also January 21st: Final team roster due. This spreadsheet [link] must list everyone on your team who's attending the meeting. We will use it for registration, wrist band distribution, and Covid verification. Anyone not on the list, or who doesn't have a Covid form uploaded by January 21st, will not be able to attend the meeting.

Finally, here is some information [link] on the meeting hotel and another hotel we have negotiated block rates with. You can email [hotel 1 person] or [hotel 2 person] directly for bookings.

Thanks for your help! I'll follow up on these dates as they get nearer. Please reach out to me directly with any questions. See you in February!

One email, six or seven lines of text, with links instead of attachments, and no one's time is wasted. It took me about 30 minutes to distill the 5 pages down to the 4 bullet points it contained because I'd already spent over an hour going through them earlier. That time doesn't include the hour I spent on a Zoom call with the organizer and my subject-matter expert trying to get an asinine requirement for our presentation waived or modified. Eventually the organizer got to the point of understanding our request and offering to do exactly what I requested weeks earlier, but not before cutting off my SME more than once for—wait for it—providing unnecessary details. My SME later said that my face may have expressed feelings best left unexpressed at those moments.

If I ever send you a professional email like this, please take me to get screened for early-onset dimentia.

The worst part? I honestly don't know why we're even attending.

Last edited Tuesday, January 4, 2022 8:53 PM CST