It’s vital for businesses to have publications written well. Good writing keeps readers reading. Bad writing makes them stop. And when readers stop reading because they are bored or baffled, they form a negative view of the business concerned. So bad writing damages brands and reputations. That places a heavy responsibility on anyone who writes for customers, investors or other business audiences. It’s our job to make sure people keep reading and that the business tells its story as clearly as it can.
Clients are sometimes surprised by the way writers present their business. But there are usually good reasons for this, nearly always to do with making the content clear and engaging. Remember, a piece of writing aimed at external audiences is not a board paper or a university essay. It doesn’t need to include all the background and detail, but it does need to hit the key points and keep people interested.
So this is a short guide to why writers write the way they do, particularly in reports aimed at non-specialist audiences.
- Cut to the chase. Would a person who’s drowning say “Let me first give you some context – this is a river.”? Or would they just shout “Help!”? Yet how many business communications have you read that start with deadly phrases words such as “The purpose of this document is….”.
Read the front page stories in your newspaper. Note how they start with the most important facts and then fill in the background – what the politician said, for example, not where she said it. So when you’re writing, or providing material for writing, use the ‘telegram’ technique. Imagine you are being charged for every word and get the main point down as simply as possible.
- Imagine the reader. Imagine the person with whom you are trying to communicate. If you know your listener or reader knows nothing about a subject you make a special effort to explain things in clear, jargon-free, terms. And of course, it’s much tougher than explaining things to someone who understands the background. This is why writers often take time and ask lots of questions. They are effectively acting as translators of ‘company-speak’ into plain English. Sometimes companies aren’t that concerned about non-specialist readers. They may be publishing communications for a specialised audience, or to comply with regulation, and not intending the output for the general reader. Fair enough, but if this is the case, they probably don’t need a professional writer. Well-educated, articulate people are quite capable of writing reports about technical or specialist subjects for their peers. It is the task of communicating such topics in simple terms to a general audience that takes the skill.
- ‘Don’t tell me, show me’. It’s easy to say: “We consulted widely”. Easy, but dull. Every such statement needs a ‘proof point’ – an example to show how the statement is put into action. Statements are boring. Case studies, examples, data and people are interesting. “We held 80 meetings with local people” is better than “We consulted widely”. But a first-hand account of such a meeting with a picture is even better. “Stick to the headlines” is usually the wrong advice for communicators. The detail is not only where the devil famously resides, but also the excitement, the colour, the interest and the human angle. Think of the difference between “Our operations are founded on leading edge technology” and an illustrated case study showing how engineers created a new car engine or tourism app.
- Does the opposite make sense? This is a time-honoured news-editor’s test of whether a statement is worth reporting. It is not newsworthy to say “We have the highest standards of governance” because no-one would say “We have the lowest standards of governance.” Worthwhile statements describe the outcomes of choices rather than articulating aspirations that all reasonable organisations would share. However, “ABC plc is investing in Russia” is news, because “ABC plc is not investing in Russia” would also be plausible. Bland assertions invite cynicism, but hard facts cannot be contradicted.
- Think ‘outside-in’, not ‘inside-out’. One reason why people inside an organisation can be baffled by the way writers portray their work is that they aren’t putting themselves into the place of readers on the outside who are unfamiliar with the company’s language. For example, someone in an energy company wanted me to write ‘Mobility is an important part of our business.’ By ‘mobility’ they meant fuel for cars, trucks, trains and planes. But someone from a telecoms company reading that phrase might have thought it was talking about mobile phones. Another reader’s thoughts might have turned to wheelchairs. Someone else might have thought it simply meant getting about. Fortunately, the company understood and we changed it to ‘transport’.
- Plan the route and use signposts. Most corporate reports are now fairly well-structured. And most people who have had to write essays or do college projects are quite adept at structuring their work. The danger is expecting the reader to follow the structure when it gets complicated. Minimising the number of separate sections, using eye-catching titles, and making explicit links between sections can help.
- Write as you speak. Don’t be afraid to use ordinary, idiomatic English as you would in conversation. We want people to understand what we say, not think it’s been translated from another language.
- Try to use ordinary words. Sesquipedalianism – the practice of using long or obscure words – may impress examiners, clients or even line managers, but it is a barrier to understanding when trying to reach wider audiences. Express yourself in everyday words and there is less room for misunderstanding. Remember the politician who visited a school and found a teenager baking cakes. “Is this obligatory?” he asked. “No”, said the student, “it’s cookery.”
- Try to avoid ‘grey words’. Certain abstract words occur again and again in corporate publications. Examples are ‘develop’, ‘address’, ‘implement’, ‘framework’, ‘critical’ and ‘key’. These are ‘grey’ words. They paint no pictures and tell no stories. Make your own list of such words and when you find yourself writing one, ask if there is a better way to say what you mean.
- Polish the piece. Writing is like sculpting. The first draft provides a rough shape but subsequent drafts add the lines and contours that make it distinctive. So print out what you have written. Pretend you are a reader and read it through. Then edit it – remove assertions, add examples, cut jargon, replace grey words. For example, I just went back through this piece and changed ‘identifying with’ to the less grammatically pure but more direct ‘putting themselves into the place of’. Then give it to someone else to read to see if they understand it. And once you’re happy with it, stop.
Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay