This post originally appeared on Newswire.ca
Sometimes smart people are the worst. At writing, that is. In their attempt to sound intelligent they bore their readers in with clunky, passive statements that do little to convey their message, no less their intelligence. Dr. Michael Sider, assistant professor, Management Communications at Ivey Business School talked to us about why this happens, and what smart people should be doing instead.
Q: Why is good writing so important to corporate communications?
MS: How you write speaks volumes about the character of your company. Good writing creates clarity and clarity leads to marketplace power. People can’t make good decisions—investment decisions, consumer decisions, career decisions—if they can’t understand you.
Good writing reinforces your brand. For example, Bombardier has implemented a corporate writing style that uses sentence structure and word choice to create a sense of energy, of flight, of movement – all constructs that make sense with the transportation manufacturer’s brand essence. An example taken from their annual report, reads:
They do this by employing the power of silence with short, purposeful statements that create a pause. Their use of repetition, rhythm and rhetorical balance delivers the impression while reading that the world is on the move – and so is Bombardier. What Bombardier does particularly well is to find a balance between when to use these constructs and when not to use them. They don’t overdo it.
Q: Why are we so bad at plain language and clarity when it comes to business writing?
MS: I think some people wrongly equate formal and complex language with intelligence. I’m with Jack Welch, who said the opposite is actually the case (at least in business). Strong, clear-thinking people speak simply. If you think of the sayings that stick with us, many are really simple: “Knowledge is power,” “don’t cry over spilled milk,” “survival is not sufficient.” The “Ten Commandments” are plain and simple for good reason: they’re meant to be remembered. The best way to signal to your customers that you don’t want to be understood or remembered is to write complexly.
Q: Where did our tendency for nounspeak come from? Why do we do that?
MS: Yes, this distinction between writing sentences focused on nouns and writing with sentences centered on verbs/actions is one of the central tenets of good writing. As a PhD. student many years ago, I used to teach writing during the summers at this great school for brilliant teens called the Johns Hopkins Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth. One of the first things we talked about was writing with verbs—that’s how important the concept is. Things happen in sentences. This concept is especially true in business writing, because business is a world where events happen. People buy and sell things. Good writers reflect this activity; reveal this activity, in their writing. Richard Lanham, a wonderful writing expert, says to ask, “Who’s kicking who?”, “Who is doing the action?” Then make sure the actor, the person doing the action, is clear and comes before the action: “I bought the stock.” That kind of approach to writing gives you a clear action and a clear actor. Nouns are central to thought, but everyone good knows verbs are first. To avoid the passive voice, be sure action carries the sentence, not the noun. Get that right and all else will fall in place.
I think many people tend to write noun-centered sentences because nouns seem weightier than verbs. They contain concepts, for example, and the ability to understand concepts shows intelligence. So people write with nouns to sound intelligent and give weight to their writing. But all that weight tends to obscure rather than clarify your point, and it also makes your writing really dense. Dense, obscure writing doesn’t sell.
You don’t need a complex writing style to sound smart. Here’s a great example. Researchers took some language from an actual annual report and asked a very successful business leader to improve it.
Warren Buffet’s revision:
The difference is obvious. There was no actor in the original writing. He rewrote it and all of a sudden there is an actor in every sentence. Yet so much of business writing is like that first example. (From: USA Today, Oct. 14, 1991, quoted in Richard Lanham, Revising Business Prose, Fourth Edition, 54-55.)
Q: What are the keys to writing in plain language?
MS: Let’s use the above as an example.
- Use pronouns
- “Maturity and duration management decisions are made”
- “We will try to profit”
- Be verb-centered rather than noun-centered
- “The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted”
- “We will hold,” “We will concentrate,” “We will buy”
- Avoid the passive
- “Adjustments made to shorten portfolio maturity and duration are made to limit capital losses”
- “We will focus on the big picture and won’t make moves based on short-term considerations.”
- Get rid of as many prepositions as you can, since prepositions make sentences noun-centered
- “The maturity structure of the portfolio is adjusted in anticipation of cyclical interest rate changes.”
- “And, conversely, if we expect a major shift to lower rates, we will buy long bonds.”
Q: What advice do you have for people who need to write, but lack training or practice? New executives, or technical people promoted into management.
MS: Take a good course in business writing, one that exposes you to the most used forms of business writing—how to write good emails, letters, executive summaries, reports. Make sure the course pays special attention to the process of revision and requires lots and lots of writing and revision as part of the learning process. You learn to write by writing and getting good feedback on your writing, so a good course emphasizes practice and feedback.
Dr. Sider teaches Management Communication at the Ivey Business School. He teaches in Ivey’s Executive MBA, MBA, and HBA programs, and is heavily involved in Ivey’s executive development programs. View his complete bio here: http://www.ivey.uwo.ca/faculty/directory/michael-sider/