Many things stop us from writing well. The pace of business life is such that few people can afford the time to prepare a well-structured business letter or report – telephones ring, meetings loom, deadlines approach, expectations gather like vultures, in-trays fill, clients demand. And the one person you need most of all to check your copy has just gone on holiday. Emails flurry about, texts beep at you. Too much information, too little read, too many people hiding behind their own closed doors trying to shut out the noise. The act of writing a report, letter, speech – which should be continuous and achieved in one’s own reasonably free space – is interrupted. And because of so many interruptions it is often the case that the conviction, tone, flow, logic and argument are lost.
It is small wonder that, with so many conflicting pressures, the language used in business writing is generally poor and confusing. It’s like munching cardboard. Just one quick example of the language problem: pomposity. The writer has been asked to reply to a letter from a client whose trade is important to the company. What can often happen at this point is that the writer starts to puff and blow. He has always been quite ready with words, good at getting his ideas across in management meetings. Now he has to write something important and potentially valuable. He develops pomp and circumstance in his expression; he prefers the long word to the short; French derivatives to the Anglo-Saxon. He will start delivering deliverables, offering value-creating propositions (usually without the hyphen), and monetizing potential forecasts. Compound nouns formed of business-speke start to stretch out like weak elastic; the risk of grammatical error increases and where on earth do you put the comma?
Or he might fall into the comfortable habits and conventional wisdoms of his profession. If he is a solicitor turning out documents by rote, it is likely that each unending sentence will be riddled through with strings of provisos and qualifications which so often hide or confuse meaning. They also reduce accountability.
The reason for this poverty of expression is, in some ways, the result of a desire to close doors of communication rather than to open them. A good deal of external business communication is defensive. Companies seldom genuinely explain what they do and how their business model really works – for good reason. They explain how they have met and exceeded targets, what their profits are, how they are performing. They will always try to offer their better profile. In this way, they are like all of us. But by doing the same thing in the same way, over and over again, and by marketing themselves through cliché, their brand or message can lose its impact.
A short aside here. We live in a volatile world where all trade has become enmeshed and interdependent, where banks have failed, where people’s savings have eroded and where share prices escape the forecasters. The net result is confusion about ‘strategy’, ignorance about ‘tactics’, and sometimes hopeless inadequacy when it comes to ‘operations’ – from the bottom line to the board room. And because the public sector has for some twenty years been run on increasingly corporate lines, aping business structures and principles, government too is finding it very difficult to explain itself. This has led to a lack of trust and a thoroughly disengaged electorate. Cynicism pervades all sectors. Poor, ineffective or self-defensive communications tend to smother any spark of creativity. It is easiest to go to the cliché box and get home to the kids as soon as you can.
This is very general and perhaps too gloomy. The important thing to note is that we can all communicate better and it is well worth attempting. There are a few techniques which will help you marshal your thoughts when you sit down to communicate something you consider to be important. Not only this, you can learn to enjoy writing for and about your company or organisation and in so doing you can develop your own talent and creativity.
First, let’s narrow the focus a little.
The purpose of a business letter or report is to communicate facts, an idea, an opinion or a recommendation. The readers of reports are usually decision-makers. They too are busy men and women. When they are reading your reports, they too have telephone calls, interruptions and a mounting in-tray. If the communication is not clear – immediately and transparently clear – it will be put to one side for that free time that never comes. Or binned.
It is easy to write turgid prose. It is easier, for example, to write a leader for The Times than it is to condense the main elements of a story into 100 words for consumption by a reader of a red top paper – say, The Mirror. The leader of The Times is, incidentally, normally written very clearly and well – the style affords greater sentence length and complexity of expression. But to produce The Mirror piece, the writer concerned must understand what the The Times leader writer also understands. He or she must then express this knowledge in the most accessible terms.
One of the problems which we have to overcome is the way we were taught to write at school – or the way that our bosses were taught at school, which means that they will have a sharp eye for what they consider to be mistakes. Well into the 1990s, some teachers – but fewer by then – sought style, grammatical perfection and climax in our essays. Some of them confused expansive language with style – and some of the subjects they gave us to write about were an excuse for waffle.
Frankly, we have to forget about all that. Business letters and reports are business tools. They must communicate in precise and easily understood terms. They have to be designed to save time.
Seven golden rules
There are seven ‘golden’ rules that will help you to write more simply and clearly:
Rule 1: Use familiar words - favour Anglo Saxon rather than other derivatives, such as French. e.g., ‘send’ rather than ‘transmit’, ‘carry out’ rather than ‘implement’ (or at least as an alternative to ‘implement’, which is one of those words that crop up in reports time and time again).
Rule 2: Avoid words of three or more syllables as far as possible unless they are in common usage. They tire the reader.
Rule 3: Avoid clichés - they are often too loose as expressions and can be misunderstood.
Rule 4: Avoid professional jargon - your reader may not be an expert in your field. If you need to use a professional word which is standard for you but may be obscure for others, explain it.
Rule 5: Keep your average sentence length to between 15 and 20 words. This does not mean that every sentence must be 15 to 20 words long – that would be boring. People need variety and short sentences can provide real impact when required. If the average is substantially higher than 20 words, the readability of the document drops alarmingly.
Rule 6: Sentences should contain one thought or idea. Paragraphs should contain sentences about related thoughts or ideas. Start a new paragraph with a new idea or concept, or one that leads on from the last idea. Sometimes long paragraphs are inevitable because of the density of closely related ideas. But try to keep paragraphs short, with an average of four or five sentences.
Rule 7: Be consistent. There are many different house styles – look at spelling styles: organise or organize, focus or focuss, benefiting or benefitting; be careful when presenting numbers: three and 13, or 3 and 13?; make sure you use headings and sub-headings consistently. Inconsistency throws the reader and can make a text hard to understand.