What does “Be professional!” mean in a business setting? Three things. First, try to create the impression that you have plenty of time to devote to whatever task you’re doing (even if you’re huffing and puffing to meet a deadline). Second, aim to get every detail (including usage and spelling) right. Third, you want to sound up-to-date.
1. Professionals are never in a hurry – or at least they never look as if they’re in a hurry. (Suppose you were having surgery. Would you want your doctor to rush through your operation? I don’t think so.)
How do you create the all-important I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world-to-get-this-right impression? In several ways: Neatness. Accuracy. Refusing to cut corners (no abbreviations, no text-speak). Getting the details right. If you’re writing a business letter and don’t know someone’s position, or you’re unsure about spelling the name, do a Google search or make a phone call.
When I was in college, I used to work as a temporary typist to earn spending money. One day I landed in the office of the president of McGraw-Hill publishers. I was given a letter to New York’s governor to type – but first the secretary called the library to check on the correct way to do the envelope and the greeting.
I was impressed. What a great lesson for a college freshman and future professional! (In case you’re wondering, you put “The Honorable Nelson Rockefeller” on the envelope, and the greeting is “Dear Governor Rockefeller.”)
2. The second principle – getting everything right – begins with fact-checking and ongoing efforts to educate yourself about English usage. And there’s one more thing, also learned during my days as a temporary typist: Get someone else to check your work before you send it out.
The topnotch secretaries I worked with always asked me to proofread their work. It was unnerving to have an expensively dressed and coiffed executive secretary ask me, a humble temp, to check a letter or report. Once again I learned a vital lesson: Successful people cover all the bases to ensure that everything is right.
3. It’s important to make your correspondence and reports have a 21st-century feel. That means getting rid of words and expressions that make you sound like a 19th-century business writer: “Thanking you in advance,” “the above-referenced,” “take cognizance of.” In the last hundred years, successful businesses have aimed to project a warm, human image. Correspondence that sounds like a machine talking started to disappear (thankfully!) when Queen Victoria died.
But can you thank someone before they’ve done you a favor? Of course! Thank you is a fine (and modern) business phrase: You don’t need to add “in advance.” (Do you do that when you’re asking for a favor in person? Probably not!)
Similarly, when you’re writing about a person, product, or case, there’s no need to write “the above-referenced”: It’s obvious whom you’re referring to. If necessary, use the name: Jim, Jane, Ms. Carter.