Stepping Up to the Pen
How to Improve Written Communication.
When you stop to think about it, fitness professionals are highly skilled communicators. Whether you are working on the fitness floor with clients or addressing colleagues at conventions, you are translating highly technical information into understandable language that educates and motivates. For the most part, however, these skills have been honed in person and over the telephone. But what happens when you need to prepare written correspondence? Do you know the elements of effective written communication? Are you presenting the same professional image in writing as you do in person? Use the information below to ensure that your written documents reflect the high level of professionalism and credibility you’ve worked so hard to earn.
Effective written communication affects all aspects of your fitness career, including “your ability to successfully connect with your staff, educate your clients about important fitness concepts and make a positive first impression on prospective customers,” according to Amanda Vogel, MA, writer and owner of Active Voice, a writing, editing and consulting service for fitness professionals, based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Honing excellent writing skills doesn’t apply only to the marketing materials you commonly think of, such as articles, newsletters, brochures, fliers and website copy. Effective written communication also applies to more routine, business-related correspondence, including the documents described below.
Welcome Letters to New Clients and Participants. The sale of a fitness program doesn’t stop when your clients
register for your program or class. A welcome letter that thanks them for their business and summarizes how your exercise program will help meet their fitness goals shows that you’re a professional and their decision to work with you was a smart one.
Requests for Medical Clearance. When you have clients or class participants with health issues that require medical approval, there are insurance and legal policies that require you to obtain that approval in writing. While it’s common practice to use the one-size-fits-all medical clearance form, a more effective approach would be to include, along with the form, a well-written cover letter that explains who you are, your credentials and how you plan to approach your client’s (their patient’s) exercise program.
Internal Organizational Memos. Whether you own a studio or work for a fitness facility, you may have to write correspondence to your subordinates, superiors or co-workers. The purpose could be as simple as introducing new fitness staff or as complex as giving the details about a major change in your company’s pricing structure.
Instructions. Instructional correspondence helps the reader complete a task. You may need to write exercise instructions for your clients, equipment operation instructions for club members, procedures on how to complete a transaction for staff, or posters with instructions about what steps to take in an emergency.
Incident Reports. Unfortunately, the nature of the fitness business exposes you to the possibility of experiencing a health- or safety-related episode with clients, class participants or staff. For an Incident Report as for a Request for Medical Clearance, you most likely will use a standard form; however, most forms require a written statement, either within the form or attached to it, describing the details of what occurred and when, who was involved and where it happened.
Of course, you might have the opportunity to write other types of correspondence as a fitness professional. So how do you make sure you clearly communicate your purpose regardless of the document? No matter which type of writing you do, “get your general ideas on paper or the computer screen—this is your first draft,” says Vogel. “Now go back and edit.”
When editing, consider the following factors:
Key 1: Use a Professional Tone. Your readers will form an opinion of you from the content, the style and, most important, the attitude and tone that come across in your writing. Create a professional, positive tone by using simple, direct language. Adopt a “you-attitude” versus an “I-attitude,” to show that you’re sincere in your focus on the reader rather than on yourself as the writer.
If you need to convey unwelcome information, craft it with special care. When denying a request or sharing bad news, acknowledge the problem or situation and diplomatically explain the background and your position. If responding to a request, make your “no” response clear so there’s no misunderstanding. If you can, suggest an alternative and build goodwill as much as possible by offering to answer any questions the reader may have.
Key 2: Know Your Audience. The intended readers of your correspondence can vary from medical doctors, lawyers and other fitness professionals to clients of all occupations and ages, including children. You must consider their backgrounds, technical expertise and educational levels as well as their mindsets and possible reactions to your writing. This process is no easy task, but the more time you take to identify your audience, the more effective your message will be.
Key 3: Organize Your Information Clearly. Arrange your thoughts so that your correspondence can be read quickly and comprehended easily. Organize the information based on your purpose. For example, when writing instructions, organize your information in sequential, or step-by-step, order. For incident reports, write in chronological order, explaining how the events unfolded. When sharing news and information, use the “6Ws”—who, what, when, where, why and how—to guide you.
Key 4: Use the Right Format. Format refers to how your correspondence is laid out on paper or online. Usually writers choose their formats based on the method of delivery—letter, memo or e-mail. Each type has distinct format conventions (guidelines) for including and placing elements such as the date, addressee, subject line, salutation, message body, closing line, signature block and company letterhead or logo. (See “Correspondence Format Conventions” on page 114 for examples.)
Key 5: Use Visual Elements Carefully. Visual elements—such as font size and type; underlined, italicized or bold text; and bulleted or numbered lists—help emphasize key points and make your correspondence more effective. With all the options available, be careful not to go overboard, especially with fonts. Choose font types based on your document’s purpose, audience and formality. Vogel says to avoid using all caps, which can impede readability and give the wrong impression. “Your goal is to make writing as easy to read as possible,” she says.
Effective written communication includes your font choice because it can affect the comfort, ease and readability of your correspondence. Choose the most appropriate computer-text font for your document, based on its purpose, audience and formality.
1. For formal documents, such as letters and company memos, use businesslike serif fonts, such as Times New Roman, Book Antigua, Garamond or Courier New.
2. For less formal documents and e-mail messages, use an easy-to-read font, either serif (like those fonts just mentioned above) or sans serif. Good sans serif choices are Arial, CG Omega, Tahoma, Trebuchet and Verdana.
3. Avoid using “social” fonts, i.e., those used for invitations and restaurant menus, such as Bradley Hand, Monotype Corsiva, and Pointed Brush, to name a few. Social fonts are inappropriate for business correspondence because they are more difficult to read, and they give a visual cue that the content is not serious or professional.
4. Use the font size and text attributes (all caps, bold, italic, underline) carefully. When the font is too large, the document may appear juvenile; and when it’s too small, the document is crowded and hard to read. Use text attributes only to help emphasize key words. Font size should be consistent and easy on the eyes.
Because you write correspondence quickly, without the benefit of a professional editor or graphic designer to review it, you are more likely to make common mistakes that can discredit you, such as poor grammar, punctuation and spelling. Take time to proofread your own writing, and use the spelling and grammar check features of your software or e-mail programs.
Vogel says it’s important to carefully consider writing style. “Many fitness pros write in a very formal or technical style,” she says. “For example, a memo meant to educate and excite your staff about an upcoming fitness event should not read like a college essay.” Conversely, she says, some fitness pros try to write in a conversational tone that becomes too casual, sloppy or careless.
Some common mistakes can have legal or ethical consequences as well. Mistakes of this kind might include omitting dates, names and necessary signatures; failing to use company letterhead or logo; and using inappropriate, exclusionary or gender-based language.
Without question, effective written communication will take you far in your fitness career. But it will also prepare you to write the types of documents that aren’t so routine, such as the all-important sales letters and business proposals. When your company decides to expand or bid on contracts for corporate wellness or fitness programs, your skills will position you well to persuade an audience that your company’s services are the best. And, because these documents can result in thousands of dollars in sales and revenue, your company won’t rely on just anybody. They’ll rely on you, the fitness professional who not only knows the technical side of the business but can also step up to the pen to make things happen.