Business Writing Tip #157—Saying ‘No’ in an Email: Sticky Situations

Have you ever been asked to do something that you really don’t want to do? Someone asks you for a favour. Maybe they want you to introduce them to a business contact or give them a recommendation. I’m sure that there have been times that you really wanted to say ‘no’, but probably end up saying ‘yes’ because, well, it’s hard to say ‘no’, isn’t it?no - road sign

Here are some ideas that might help you out of those sticky situations.

Situation 1: A former colleague asks for a recommendation

A couple of years ago you worked with someone for just a short period of time. You didn’t really know them well, or maybe you just didn’t get on with them. Now that person wants a letter of recommendation, or asks you to write a recommendation for their LinkedIn profile. You would really rather not write anything.

What to write: This is one of the most difficult situations you’ll probably find yourself in. It’s good to be honest, but you also need to be kind. The best bet is to come up with a good reason why you aren’t the best person to write the recommendation.

Thanks for thinking of me. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the best person to write the recommendation for you because … (pick a reason)

  • I haven’t seen you manage a team, which seems to be a major responsibility in the job you’re applying for
  • I am not familiar with your project management skills on large projects, and this is something that seems important in the role you’re after
  • I know you did some research when we worked together, but we worked together for such a short time that I don’t feel I can provide any in-depth comments

Then add:

  • If you have another colleague who is able to discuss your abilities in more depth, I’m sure getting them to write a recommendation will improve your chances. Good luck.

Situation 2: You’re invited to join a committee you really don’t want to join

You’re a member of an association, or an industry organisation, and you’ve gone to some of their events, but they’ve not been brilliant. You may even be thinking of quitting, or not attending anything further. Then the President suggests you might want to join their membership committee. Of course:

  • It is an honour to be asked and you don’t want to offend anyone
  • You don’t have time, and really don’t see the value in being more involved

What to write:

This isn’t so difficult. Thank the President for inviting you, and let them know what an honour you think it is to be considered for the position, but let them know you don’t have time.

Thank you for asking me. I feel honoured by the invitation. However, with my current work and family commitments I wouldn’t be able to give the role the time and effort it deserves. I would feel dreadful if I took it on and then let the organisation down.

Situation 3: You’re asked to introduce someone you don’t know well to an important business contact, and you don’t want to

Someone you hardly know asks you to help them meet your company’s CFO because they’re interested in a career in finance. You don’t really know the person, and your relationship with the CFO is important. You don’t want to be seen as someone who is wasting their time.

What to write: Take advantage of the fact that everyone is busy. Tell the person that the CFO just doesn’t have any spare time right now.

Thanks for contacting me. Our CFO is fabulous and an excellent role model. Unfortunately right now she has a lot on her plate, with the (upcoming merger, company transformation, fast approaching board meeting …) and I don’t feel comfortable adding something else to her load. Are there any questions about working here that I can answer for you?

I hope this gives you some ideas for dealing with these sticky situations. I’ll give you some more in a later post.

Let me know if you’ve ever had trouble saying ‘no’.

Happy writing.

The Exclamation Mark (or Point if you’re from the US)

One of the sites I subscribe to (Hubspot Blogs) recently posted a great infographic about using exclamation marks, so I decided to share it with you. The original article is about using them on the web, but the same guidance applies in any kind of business writing.


You can find the original Hubspot post here.

Business Writing Tip #156—Tips for Taking Minutes: After the Meeting

In the last tip I wrote about what to take notes of during a meeting. Now the meeting’s over. What next?

You’ve taken notes and recorded decisions, action items, deadlines and people responsible. You’ve recorded all the information on your minute taking template. The minutes are a formal record of the meeting and it’s important to be accurate. One way to do this is to finalise them immediately, or as soon as practicable, after the meeting.

So it’s time to write everything up and finalise the minutes.

After the Meeting

If your handwriting looks like this, you might want to write your notes up immediately ...

If your handwriting looks like this, you might want to write your notes up immediately …

  1. Immediately after the meeting, review your notes and add additional comments, or clarify what you didn’t understand. Do this while the information is fresh in everybody’s mind (and while you can still read your own handwriting!) Type your notes in the template you created before the meeting—this will make your notes easier for you, and others, to read and use.
  2. Number the pages as you go. Keep everything in order and make sure that you can easily follow your notes. Sometimes you may find that information on an item that occurred early in the meeting was supplemented by something that occurred later. You can put these together if it helps improve the flow and readability of the minutes.
  3. Focus on the decisions and action items, rather than the discussion. It’s not important to remember who said what. It is important to know who is responsible for doing what after the meeting.
  4. Be objective and avoid adding personal observations.
  5. Only use people’s names when they move or second a motion, or when they are the person responsible for an action. Avoid saying who said what.
  6. When you need to refer to other documents, for example documents that were presented at the meeting, attach them as an appendix to the minutes and include a reference to the appropriate passage. Avoid trying to summarise or rewrite them.
  7. When you’ve finished typing up the minutes, ask the chair to review them for accuracy and clarity.
  8. Distribute the minutes to the meeting attendees. Keep your notes, and the template, in case you need to review them later, or someone wants to double check a point.

Happy writing.

Business Writing Tip #155—Tips for Taking Minutes: During the Meeting

In a couple of posts I’ve talked about the agenda and the minutes of meetings. In this post I want to consider what happens when you are actually taking minutes. The most important thing to remember when you’re recording the minutes is that you need the essential information. But which information is that?meeting minutes template image

  • How do you decide what to note down during the meeting to include in the minutes?
  • How much information should you record?
  • What should you leave out?

In essence the minutes record the decisions of the meetings and the assigned actions. They are used to remind people of their roles after the meeting.

Here are some things to remember:

  • If you are the person taking the minutes, make sure you are not a major participant in the meeting. It’s almost impossible to contribute to discussion and decision-making well, and take good minutes.
  • Use a template, based on the agenda. Make sure you leave plenty of blank space to record your notes. Make sure you note down who is responsible for assigned actions, any agreed deadlines, and the decisions that are made by the meeting. Download a sample template (in MSWord format) here. 
  • Use a system of initials to identify the people responsible. It’s much quicker than scribbling down people’s names. Decide on the initials you are going to use before the meeting and make sure you’re familiar with them. Also, if there are people at the meeting you’ve not met before, make sure you are clear on who is who.
  • Avoid trying to write down everything that is said. Focus on understanding what is being discussed. Focus on noting down action items, decisions, deadlines, and the names of people responsible.
  • If you don’t understand something, or lose track of the discussion, ask the chairperson to clarify the item. It helps if the chairperson summarises each item during the meeting. Not all chairs do this, but you can always ask them. It not only helps you record the vital information. By restating the main points the chair can also be sure that everyone at the meeting has a common understanding about what has been agreed.

In my next post I’ll give you some tips for what to do after the meeting.

Business Writing Tip #154—The Meeting Agenda

1024px-Daily_sprint_meetingEarlier today I was thinking that I have posted about writing the minutes of meetings, but I haven’t yet written anything for you on how to write an agenda. It’s time to fix that, so here goes!

What is an agenda?

Quite simply, the agenda is the framework for your meeting.

Do I need one?

Yes, yes, yes. The agenda not only provides a framework. It’s also a tool for:

  • Keeping the meeting on track, and
  • Making sure everyone who will attend the meeting is prepared.

What should I include?

The basics

Okay, let’s get the standard items out of the way first.

  • Name of the meeting
  • Time and date
  • Location of the meeting
  • Name of the chairperson
  • Unless it’s completely obvious, include a list of those invited
  • The agenda items

Pretty straightforward so far …

The added extras

The next few items will help you keep meetings on track. You’ve already defined what topics the meeting will cover, but by adding some extra information you can make sure people come to the meeting well-prepared and with a clear understanding of the issues. These items help you manage the expectations of the attendees.

  1. State how much time will be allocated to each agenda item. I’m sure you’ve been to meetings that go on, and on, and on … By allocating a time period, and convincing the chairperson to stick to this, you can keep the meeting on track. An identified timeframe helps people focus on the issue because they know that time is limited. This also helps you make sure you get through the whole agenda and don’t have to call a halt to the meeting with some issues not dealt with because you didn’t have enough time.
  2. Add some information about the expected outcome of each item. Do you want a decision; does there need to be a vote; are you looking for agreement or consensus? If you’re using the meeting to gather ideas, how many ideas do you want? The added advantage of working to outcomes is that the meeting attendees will have a real sense of achievement.
  3. State who is responsible for each agenda item. Make sure the concerned people know about their role and have agreed. Allocate responsibilities for items in advance of the meeting so people have time to prepare properly.
  4. Highlight if people need to do any preparation before the meeting. If you want suggestions for an event venue, ask people to bring information on proposed venues. If you’re looking for a trainer, again ask participants to deliver not just names, but also background information and contact details.
  5. Include details of any reading (background papers, reports, correspondence. etc.) that people should read before attending the meeting. Make sure you distribute the papers well in advance so people have time to read them (but be careful about distributing them too far ahead of time—people might put them in their ‘to do’ pile and forget them.

There you have it. Some ideas about information you can include in an agenda to make meetings run more smoothly. Another advantage of preparing the agenda well is that it will help you record the minutes.

Happy writing.

If you want more on taking minutes, take a look at my ebook, The Minute Manualon Amazon.


Image: By Klean Denmark (Daily Sprint Meeting) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Business Writing Tip #153—Dangling Modifiers

Prague,_Sigmund_Freud_hangingWhat is a dangling modifier? If we don’t know what they are, can they really be so important? When it comes to writing well it is important to get rid of dangling modifiers. So I suggest you find out what they are, then seek them out and remove them. I hope this post will help.

What is a modifier?

Before I talk about the problematic dangling ones, it’s important to know what a modifier is. In short, it is a word that modifies something. It changes something. And it does it in different ways. It may:

  • add some extra information about something
  • clarify something
  • describe something

Modifiers work best when they are close to the words they are modifying. Modifiers can be words that we classify as adjectives or adverbs, or they can be phrases. It’s when they are phrases that we may encounter the dangling modifier.

What is a dangling modifier?

Quite simply a dangling modifier is one where it isn’t clear which word is being modified. The best way to show you what I mean is with an example.

  • As a new member, I would like to welcome you to this committee.

When you look at this example, it suggests that ‘I’ am the new member. The sentence should read:

  • I would like to welcome you to this committee as a new member.

Here’s another example.

  • Looking through the campaign materials, the beautiful images make me believe that this campaign will inspire our clients.

Of course the beautiful images are not looking through the campaign materials. This sentence should read:

  • Looking through the beautiful images included in the campaign materials, I believe that this campaign will inspire our clients.

As we write, our thoughts wander and it’s easy to put a modifier in the wrong place. And you can’t rely on your grammar checker. It’s unlikely to pick up this type of error.

Just for a laugh

To demonstrate the problems, and the unintentional humour that can arise, I’ve included the following example sentences from The Little Green Grammar Book, by Mark Tredinnick.

Never refresh vegetables that you aren’t going to eat immediately under water as it takes away the flavour.eating vegetables under water

We make recommendations for fixing all the problems in this report.

Before she’d even finished laying, Lucy chased the hen out of the coop.

Happy writing!




The image of the statue of Sigmund Freud is By Bjørn Giesenbauer [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons