An irritation, that is, until I get on my bike. Then I hate motorists. Motorists just don’t understand what it’s like to be a cyclist.
Most of us suffer from the same split personality when it comes to any kind of documentation. When we read it, we curse at the constant stream of irritations – hard-to-follow sentences and arcane language to name but two.
But, when we write a document, more often than not we fall into exactly the same traps.
It’s not intentional. We start to write, and something happens to transform even normal, plain-speaking human beings into bureaucratic robots communicating in a tongue that bears only a passing resemblance to English.
Often a lack of confidence is to blame. It takes self-belief to tell it like it is. You will often notice that the people at the top of an organisation usually use shorter words and phrases in their reports than those who are just starting their climb up the greasy pole of career progression.
It’s also partly our corporate cultures. We expect people to use long words and phrases when writing about ‘serious’ subjects. Conversely, we often equate plain English with dumbing down.
It’s important not to confuse technical jargon, which can be an excellent shortcut to good communication with your peers, with the words that connect it.
Why say ‘at this moment in time, we are currently involved in the implementation’ of something when we can just say ‘we’re implementing’ it?
It’s a common misconception that it’s more professional to hide behind arcane language, rather than telling it like it is. In doing so, we mistake verbosity for intellect, and quantity for quality.
But accountants are by no means the only culprits – verbose language is common in all business writing.
Customs & Excise, for instance, takes 137 words just to explain whether businesses can reclaim VAT on Bourbon Cream biscuits. (They can’t.)
And yet communicating effectively in writing is all the more important given the competition you’re likely to face. An Emphasis survey in 2002 revealed that a company with 5,000 employees will typically produce a staggering 78 written communications a minute.
Interviews with senior staff in some of the UK’s biggest firms have revealed that they spend an average of £10,000 per person annually paying people just to read and write emails, and that’s just the managers. In the case of one FTSE-listed company, they reckon it cost them around £39m a year.
To reduce the burden of business communications, you need to be as efficient as possible whenever you write. And that means calling a spade a spade, not a manual earth-moving implement.
There are a number of pointers to consider that will help you to make more of an impact when you write:
Step into the reader’s shoes. How much do they know about the topic and do they understand your jargon? How important is this information to them and how interested are they in it? (Not the same thing.) Our website (www.writing-skills.com) has a downloadable reader questionnaire to help you.
Know your message. Imagine you are going on television for a three-minute interview. Could you sum up the value of your topic in three minutes? Write yourself a short statement (fewer than 30 words) to clarify what you’re trying to say using everyday language. Then try it out on a trusted colleague.
Hook them in quickly. If you don’t grab your reader at the beginning of the document, you’re wasting your time. Getting a reader started is the most difficult part of writing, but there are techniques you can use. Try contrasting how things were in the recent past with how they are now. Be careful though: we’re talking two or three sentences, not two pages of ‘background’.
Go out with a bang. Good endings are almost as important as good beginnings. After all, you don’t want to leave the reader with the impression that you have simply run out of things to say. Useful techniques include: looking to the future, repeating a major issue or summarising in two or three sentences.
Keep it short and simple. Write to express, not to impress. Avoid flowery language – good ideas come across far better in plain English. Rather than saying ‘it is our intention to proceed with the introduction of …’, try ‘we intend to introduce …’.
Write in Anglo-Saxon. Churchill once said that the short words are the best, and the old words best of all. What he meant was that we should prefer words with an Anglo-Saxon origin (build, keep, start) rather than the more flowery Latin ones (construct, retain, commence).
After all, which would you prefer: a cordial reception, or a hearty welcome?
And remember, none of this means you can’t use jargon, as long as you’re certain that your intended audience will understand it.
If you have the confidence to say what you mean, your clients and colleagues will thank you. Readability is credibility, as Philip Larkin once said. EMAIL TIPS
In an increasingly digital world, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of sloppy email communications. But there are some simple tips to getting your message across effectively.
Don’t think of email as a form of electronic chatting – you may say something that you would never put in a letter, yet in the eyes of the law they may amount to the same thing.
Never use email for complex issues – pick up the phone instead. Likewise, avoid emotive topics – like appraisals or requests for a pay rise. These are far better dealt with face-to-face.
Avoid the temptation to be overly informal when writing to people you don’t know very well. Take your lead from them when it comes to style.
Use subheads in block capitals and short paragraphs to make the process of reading on screen as easy as possible. But don’t write everything in caps – this is the email equivalent of SHOUTING.
Avoid using bespoke company fonts when attaching important Word documents, as the recipient’s machine will substitute its own fonts. Use PDFs instead, if possible.
Distribute each message only to people who really must see it – avoid copying to other people ‘for information’.