The right way to write: How to be a Better Communicator part VI

Screwed-up paper on desk

Leaders and managers can’t rely only on charisma and setting the right example.

They also have to influence others with the words they use. So how come so many write so badly? In this blog, the last in a series of six on the essential skills of employee engagement, Axiom copywriter Paul Johnson offers some tips on business writing.

In 20 years as a corporate writer, I’ve met countless people at all levels who are very impressive face to face; they get their messages across with clarity, they convince, they sometimes even inspire. Yet ask them to put their ideas in writing, whether for a big set-piece presentation, a blog post or an important report, and it’s a different story – usually a long, boring and incoherent one. That’s often true even for those who could be expected to have an advantage thanks to a university degree or a background in marcomms.

Maybe it’s because, since leaving education, no-one has ever given them any pointers on their writing. Besides, what we learned to do at school, as we inched painstakingly towards an essay word count or tried to show examiners how terribly clever we were, is just plain counterproductive in the real world.

Here are five common mistakes in business writing – and how to put them right:

  1. Blethering on: Forget what you were taught about essay writing; you know, give a lengthy introduction to the topic that includes the background information and then build gradually, with lots of padding out, towards a conclusion. Instead, get right to the point. Grab your readers’ attention in your headline and tell them the story in brief in the very first paragraph. If they want to know more, and have the time, they can read on. If they don’t, at least you’ve done your job up front. Don’t save your best for last. Unless you’re Charles Dickens, most people will have bailed out long before that. All of this is even more important when writing for the web or intranet where users are scan-reading and their mouse is never far from the ‘back’ button.
  2. Writing about what’s important to you: The history of how the product was developed might really matter to you. The intricacies of the policy might be a source of constant fascination. You might live and breathe steering group meetings. But do your readers care? Instead, they want to know what’s in it for them. Constantly ask yourself: How can I appeal to readers’ interests – especially their self-interest? A good rule of thumb is that what’s important to you is probably not important to your readers.
  3. Using long words and sentences: Be brief. Please! Long sentences – whether flowery or just plain clumsy – often make your writing less clear. And unnecessarily long words rarely impress. Aim for an average sentence length of 14-16 words (although with some variation). And always cut any first draft by at least ten per cent – it never fails to make your communication more effective.
  4. Using the passive: All too often, people writing in a corporate setting default to the passive. They seem to get caught up in using a deadening bureaucratic voice they’ve heard all their lives from big institutions. Far better to use the active – it makes the communication more direct and personal. It usually makes the sentence shorter, too. A simple example: Would you rather be told “You will be notified in writing” or “I’ll write to you”? Read more about passive/active
  5. Refusing free help: Too few people use Word’s built-in readability index. It’s a handy little tool that I use every day. Aim for a Flesch Reading Ease score of at least 40. (This blog post scores 65, incidentally). Anything under 20 is screaming: Rewrite!

Of course, it’s no bad thing for me that a lot of people in business don’t have the ability – or perhaps just the time – to write well. After all, that’s one of the gaps in the market that Axiom fills. But there’s no reason everyone can’t make some simple and effective improvements to how they write. Even then, I’m sure there will still be plenty of demand for professionally written web content, speeches, brochures – and even blog posts.

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