Writing has the power to make or break a career and to enhance or undermine a leader’s reputation.
Stephen King, the author of more than 50 bestselling books, including The Shining, and Misery, views writing as a form of telepathy, saying: “All the arts depend on telepathy, but writing is the purest form of distillation.”
Fear not. This doesn’t mean that our communication at work needs to be transmitted without words or signals, but that an important element of writing is what he calls transference.
“Your job isn’t to write words on the page, but rather to transfer the ideas inside your head into the heads of your readers. Words are just the medium through which the transfer happens,” explains King.
These thoughts chime with a definition of communication from the American Management Association as “any behaviour that results in an exchange of meaning”. Because, at its core, effective communication needs to be founded on shared understanding. It’s a two-way process in which participants not only swap ideas, feelings and information, but also create and share meaning to reach mutual understanding.
And if business is fundamentally about the art of persuasion – persuading customers to buy our products and services, persuading employees to be productive, persuading government and regulators to let us do our work well – we can’t make this happen without good communication skills. While business communication can take many different forms (from conversations and presentations to video and advertising), there’s a special place in the world of work for the art of writing. Just think of that majestic research report, an elegantly worded business offer or one of those judiciously phrased internal emails.
Which makes it all the more tragic that so much business writing falls short, dashed off without thought and destined to muddy the waters rather than communicate clearly. Bad business writing can damage our personal reputation as well as eroding trust in the organisations for which we work.
For example, PR consultant Rene Siegel discovered a raft of unfortunate typos on LinkedIn from people who hadn’t proofread their own profiles, including 214,680 people who had misspelled ‘manager’ as ‘manger’ and almost 600 with ‘pubic’ in their title instead of ‘public’. Ouch.
And the true cost of bad business writing isn’t just annoyance or embarrassment. Author Josh Bernoff estimates that it costs US business more than $400m a year.
Welcome to the world of poor business writing and its antidote: understanding the power of good writing and why it matters. The positive news is that, by adopting some simple techniques and practising these, we can all channel a little bit of Stephen King into our own writing.
What bad writing looks like
Alphabet jargon soup
Are your emails peppered with ‘joined-up, blue-sky thinking’? Do you like to ‘reach out’ to your colleagues, to ‘touch base offline’ and ‘get all your ducks in a row’? Or perhaps you don’t have enough ‘bandwidth to run it up the flagpole’.
Professor André Spicer believes an ‘alphabet soup’ of jargon and acronyms causes big problems at work. He sees this type of language as akin to the secret handshakes of the Freemasons – used by middle managers to indicate their ‘membership’ and status.
In his book Business Bullshit, he says: “People use management speak to give the impression of expertise. The inherent vagueness of this language also helps us dodge tough questions.”
Think, too, about the way that political language has become increasingly opaque, enabling politicians to sidestep both responsibility and questions they don’t want to answer. This is not a technique we should emulate in our business writing because, in the end, it leads to a lack of trust – a commodity that underpins all workplace relationships.
We can probably all think of a time when we haven’t quite understood a work document or email, but haven’t questioned its meaning – partly because we're too polite, and partly because we’re afraid to look stupid. We all need to become braver at work, honing our bullshit detectors when it comes not just to others’ writing, but to our own. Clarity is everything; people will never complain if something is easy to understand.
Former UK prime minister Winston Churchill’s wry observation that “this report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read”, brings us to another business-writing sin. Jargon aside, business writing is often, well, just a bit dull, boring and, often, overlong.
As writers at work, we must always imagine that our readers are looking for a reason to (in Tinder terms) swipe left. Your writing, whether it’s an email, report or presentation, needs to attract and hold their attention.
We must make it easier for our readers. Let’s return to Josh Bernoff, who, in Harvard Business Review, revealed that 81% of people say that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time because it’s too long, imprecise, badly organised, unclear and filled with jargon.
Many work environments are drowning in first-draft emails, poorly edited reports and jargon-filled intranets and manuals. This flabby writing slows down companies and stifles productivity.
The power of good writing and why it matters
If we are going to break these bad writing habits, we need to understand why good writing matters at work.
The thing about writing is that it can make or break a career. Kara Blackburn, from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, points out that you can have all the good ideas in the world, “but if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them”.
Good writing can boost powers of persuasion and increase influence. It can also make you more effective and efficient at work because it means you land a message first time. We’ve all experienced frustrating email exchanges where a lack of understanding and clarity in one message spirals into a ‘reply all’ frenzy, ruffling feathers and sapping time and energy.
There are many forms of writing at work – emails, long reports, presentations, speeches, blogs and memos – and each requires slightly different skills. But the principles of good writing remain the same. Good writing is good writing. Full stop. We should bear in mind the deceptively simple advice of Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who said, “Have something to say and say it well.”
One of the problems with some business writing is that there may be no need for it to exist in the first place. This is especially true with emails when it might be better to pick up the phone or walk over to someone’s desk instead.
But when we do need to put pen to paper, here are some key tips to make sure we write as clearly and effectively as we can.
How to write well: 8 practical tips
1. Tell the truth: transparency earns trust
We’d do well to consider the words of Sir Peter Medawar, biologist and Nobel Prize winner, for his work on immunity and organ transplants. He says: “People who write obscurely are either unskilled in writing or up to mischief.”
As we’ve seen, writing the truth and being clear about what we write are essential in building trust at work.
One of the ways in which companies smuggle in bad news is by making the writing obscure and distant. For example, in a December 2012 press release, Citigroup announced it would begin “a series of repositioning actions that will further reduce expenses and improve efficiency”. Translation: 11,000 people lost their jobs.
Be wary of writing in the passive voice, rather than the active voice, especially if you’re apologising or have done something wrong. To avoid vague or confusing meanings, add the right level of detail to your words.
The passive tense makes the reader wonder whether you have something to hide, whereas the active tense inspires trust. The active tense always follows the same structure: subject, verb, object. And it tends to be a shorter, simpler sentence. Your passive sentences will rely on ‘to be’, so watch out for ‘is’, ‘was’, ‘were’, ‘are’ and ‘am’ being smuggled in.
- ACTIVE – I made a mistake (accepting responsibility)
- PASSIVE – Mistakes were made (distancing from problem)
Consider the directness of Mary Barra from General Motors in a 2014 statement to the US Congress about a fault in a GM product that had cost lives. “My name is Mary Barra, and I am the chief executive officer of General Motors,” she opened. She went on to say: “I am deeply sorry.”
In contrast, the passive phrase – mistakes were made – is often used by politicians as a way to acknowledge error while distancing themselves from responsibility. It was popularised during the Watergate scandal by president Nixon’s spokesman Ron Ziegler. In 1973, he apologised to The Washington Post saying that "mistakes were made in terms of comments" the White House made about the Post and its reporters. It was famously repeated in December 1986, when Ronald Reagan conceded that "mistakes were made" by his administration when it sold arms to Iran.
It is always better to sound direct and personal in your writing by using ‘I’, ‘we’ and ‘you’, plus the active tense. So, remember to channel Mary Barra next time you need to write to your boss and hold your hands up for making a mistake. That’s how we earn trust.
2. Pursue clarity: unpick complexity
George Orwell, author of Animal Farm and 1984, said there were six questions to ask yourself as a writer:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image or idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
- Could I put it more shortly?
- Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?
We can slow down the circulation of jargon in our business simply by asking, “what does that mean?”. This forces us to present even grand ideas in simple and straightforward language. It’s worth asking ourselves the same question before we write anything at work.
The Economist, highly regarded for its thoughtful and cerebral analysis, insists journalists write their articles for a 12-year-old reader: all Economist articles on subjects from neuroscience to nuclear physics and everything in between must be readily and easily understood. It's not about dumbing down but about explaining complexity in a simple way. Its classic Style Guide opens with a straightforward ‘rule’: “Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So, think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible.”
Consider this sentence from Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, in 2014: "We actually think that the industry is at a place where you can actually see line of sight to the subsidy equation just fundamentally changing in a very short period of time.”
It's impossible to know what Mr Stephenson means. And he's not alone in writing this way. Many leaders fall into the trap of writing about challenging periods and difficult environments by being obscure.
Contrast this with the 2002 front page of Ericsson's business review for its shareholders. The Swedish telecommunication company faced an unexpected and rapid market downturn. This is what it wrote:
"2002 was tough. Our customers bought less equipment, competition increased, the roll-out of 3G was slow, and the market was difficult to predict. Some observers see no end to these difficulties. We take a different view."
Such a straight-talking approach is quick to understand and resonates with readers. The Economist's editors would surely approve.
Online readability checks can help to ensure our writing is on track. For example, The Gunning Fog Index, tells us what reading age someone needs to be able to understand our writing on first reading. These services can be a blunt instrument (they don't check logic, for example, or spelling), but they're a decent second opinion. They will give you a US school grade number. Aim for about seven, which means a 12-year-old should understand the writing.
3. Choose the best words: sting like a bee
Poet Simon Armitage writes: "In choosing a word, you’re making a statement."
The words we select are essential elements of our writing toolkit. Sidestep the jargon, choose carefully, choose well.
Because words are the raw material of our craft, we need to challenge every one we use, because the words we use are the worlds we live in. The words we choose can bring a dull piece of writing to life.
We can start by thinking about our own favourite words. Subscribing to ‘word of the day’ emails from the Oxford English Dictionary and others helps to expand our vocabulary; having access to a dictionary and thesaurus encourages us to can interrogate our language, choosing the best words and truly understanding what we're writing.
Another technique to bring business writing to life is the use of metaphor. Metaphors enable us to understand one thing in terms of another. They can be especially useful when communicating complex, dry ideas. By associating an unfamiliar idea with one that is commonplace, we can spark better understanding. They are a way of pinning jelly on the wall.
And of course, they're already used widely in business; consider careers as a ladder or leaders as captains navigating the choppy waters of disruption, and so on. The trick with metaphors is to use them sparingly and to avoid cliché. But try using one metaphor in a page of writing and notice the result. When used well, they can simultaneously further understanding and strengthen impact. Muhammad Ali didn't just throw punches; he stung like a bee.
4. Embrace simplicity: become a Haiku master
"One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you're maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones," says Stephen King. He compares this faux pas to dressing up a household pet in evening clothes; both the pet and the owner are embarrassed, because it's completely over the top.
Avoid using flowery sentences, “purple prose” or excess insider jargon. We tend to overestimate how much readers know about familiar topics. And even if our readers do understand what we’re on about, there are no extra points for making them work hard to decipher it.
A survey by Harvard professor D H Menzel found that the human brain struggles to process sentences longer than 34 words; we should make them no more than 20 words, and keep them simple.
We'd do well not to emulate Howard Schultz, founder of Starbucks, who, when asked if he planned any more acquisitions, replied: “I would say that we have enough to digest in the near-term, and there’s nothing candidly in our sightline that would suggest that we’re involved in engaging anything that we’re going to acquire.”
This sentence contains 34 words, where one would do: “No.”
Make lengthy emails and reports easier to read by sub-dividing the copy using short, snappy sub-headings and summarising key points at the top. Use sub-headings like signposts to guide your reader through your writing. That way they won't get lost.
Haiku, a form of ancient Japanese poetry, can force us to get to the point and avoid convoluted language. These poems are just three lines long; the first and third line each have five syllables and the second line, seven syllables.
Japanese haiku master Matsuo Basho (1644-1694) wrote:
An old silent pond
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.
Haiku often communicate a timeless message through brevity. For example, in Japan, a series of Zen haiku replaced the 404 error pages on the internet:
Yesterday it worked
Today it is not working
Windows is like that.
A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.
To reduce a business idea to its essence, write a haiku and see what happens. Imagine an internal memo with an important message written as a series of haiku. It would certainly make people pay attention. Having a go at this simple exercise might help us to see where we can cut and simplify.
5. Picture your reader: Dear Doris and Bertie
Warren Buffett, the CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, is a brilliant writer who also happens to be an investor and one of the wealthiest people in the world. Back in 1998, he advised:
"Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform. No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with ‘Dear Doris and Bertie’.”
Remember that communication takes place between people. It makes all the difference if we write to someone we know well.
“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted,” wrote novelist EM Forster in Howards End. We must remember that Dave in Accounts is a human being rather than an anonymous machine who invoiced our suppliers in the middle of the night. When we fire off that email to him, we might acknowledge we're talking to another human.
John Simmons, tone of voice pioneer and founding partner of Dark Angels, believes all writers need to incorporate themselves in their writing. This is how we can make our writing at work more human and therefore more interesting to our readers.
In his book We, Me, Them and It, he explains how everything we write must incorporate these four different elements:
We: the business or organisation
Me: that's us, the writer
Them: the reader/audience we're trying to reach
It: the message
Spelling out the ‘we’, ‘me’, ‘them’ and ‘it’ precisely will ensure we address all four elements.
Using the wrong tone of voice is also all too common. For example, we can be overfriendly and casual when talking about serious things. This can be an easy trap to fall into when writing an email. FT journalist Lucy Kellaway highlighted one of the least appropriate beginnings to an email from a senior leader: Microsoft’s Stephen Elop began a 1,200-word memo with a jaunty "Hello there" to announce he was axing 2,000 jobs.
We need to match our tone to what we are saying and to the person we are addressing. Beware being too chatty and overfamiliar at inappropriate times. What works when we are communicating with our kids or close friends will not translate to business contacts. Keeping our recipient in mind helps us to create the right tone.
6. Craft your prose: see the forest
Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany's, believed that brilliant writers should also be brilliant editors (or be lucky enough to have one): "I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
Advertising guru David Ogilvy also understood the importance of reviewing and editing his own work: "I’m a lousy copywriter but I am a good editor,” he said. “So, I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five edits, it looks good enough to show to the client."
This is when the good writing happens. If there's one thing we can do today to improve our writing, it's to agree never to send a first draft. Instead, sit on it for a while, return to it and see how it can be made better.
For Stephen King, writing comes in two phases: writing the first draft and then shaping the writing into something worth reading. Writing is about identifying the trees; it's only when we're finished that we can step back and look at the forest.
The writing phase is best done fast, according to John Swartzwelder, writer of 59 episodes of animated sitcom The Simpsons, so that we have something down on the page. In an interview for The New Yorker, he explained that “since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun”, he always writes his scripts all the way through, as fast as he can – “putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue”. He can then take his time finessing his copy.
Specific editing techniques include reducing phrases to their essential meaning by cutting out what psychologist Steven Pinker calls “verbiage”. In his book The Sense of Style, he cites some examples and their simple antidotes:
- is dedicated to providing – provides
- owing to the fact that – because
- on a daily basis – daily
- at such time as – when
- relating to the subject of – regarding
- it is widely observed that X – X
For Pinker, words have “to earn their keep”; those that are redundant or irrelevant need to be excised.
Here's how to get started on editing your own writing:
- Read it aloud to yourself.
- Change the font for your final read through – a different shape to the letters might expose more mistakes.
- If you run out of breath when reading your work, your sentences are too long. Shorten them. Stick to one idea per sentence.
- Cut repetition.
- Delete clutter such as 'in my opinion', 'to be honest' and 'at the end of the day'.
- Cut extraneous or tautological words such as ‘brief summary’ and ‘absolutely essential’.
- Put essential information at the top; people don’t always get to the end of a piece of writing.
- Question every word you use. Is it the best option? Is the writing better without it?
- Don't use a long word when a short one will do.
- ‘Murder your darlings’: cut the phrases you are attached to which don’t progress the story you're trying to tell.
7. Keep it logical: construct a pyramid
One way to clarify and structure in-depth writing that is full of complex ideas is to use Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle.
The Principle invites us to take a two-stage approach to organising and communicating information and ideas.
In the first stage, we start at the bottom of the pyramid, gathering and refining what we want to write or say until it forms a logical, pyramid-shaped structure with our key message or recommendation at the top (think, for example of an executive summary of a long report).
When we want to communicate that message, we then work our way down the pyramid, starting with that key message and only then moving on to provide supporting evidence or arguments in support of our recommendation or case.
It’s an approach that helps us to find out and explore what we think, to formulate and test a coherent argument, and to structure it logically.
8. Provide context: don’t cut corners
Writing a report or presentation fully is another technique that may help to clarify our thinking and to make it more robust. While creating PowerPoints can sometimes help us to organise, refine and visualise our ideas once we have developed them, writing longhand forces us to focus more clearly on the detail of what we want to say and how best to structure it in a way that follows the reader’s train of thought.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who warns that PowerPoint slides often contain “obscure information”) advocates drafting memos for meetings complete with full sentences and paragraphs.
In a 2017 letter to Amazon shareholders, he explained: “The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind.”
While this takes time, and Bezos acknowledges that it’s harder for the author to create, it forces us to clarify our own thinking and get it across better to others – potentially saving time in the long run.
Good writing acknowledges that our readers are human beings – even if we’re tempted to see them as shareholders, procurement specialists or accountants. We must keep EM Forster's ‘only connect’ in mind.
All communication is ultimately about what's heard and understood, not what's said. It's about what's read, not what we’ve written. To connect with our readers, we need to write in a way that will hold their attention. All of these things lead to more conversational and effective writing. That’s crucial because we are more likely to trust someone who writes to us as an individual. To become effective managers and leaders, we need to use the power of the pen.
Test your knowledge
- Explain why using the active voice earns trust.
- Outline the maximum number of words we should include in a sentence, according to D H Menzel.
- Describe how Barbara Minto’s Pyramid Principle might help you to marshal and communicate what you want to write.
What does it mean for you?
- When you next have to write a report or similar, bear in mind George Orwell’s six questions. Reflect on how they might help you to express yourself more clearly.
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