Want Better Business Writing? Go Window Shopping

Your window of opportunity to attract your customers is brief, so it's not smart business clouding that window to your message with empty words. The best way to fix it? Do a little cultural window shopping. 

I’ve long been on a crusade of sorts against what I’ve defined as Biz Speak. It’s not only a personal preference; I firmly believe empty corporate writing can actively damage your business.

It’s not just about the absence of content; it’s about a very real, very wasted opportunity.

There's simply not enough time to give our undivided attention to the sheer volume of content to which we’re exposed each and every day. So-called diminished attention spans are just an excise; the reality is that you have to capture your audience’s attention amidst a flood of competing -- and competitive -- information. 

So why would you want to waste any of that opportunity with empty, meaningless words?

Historically, businesses prefer to talk AT people as opposed to WITH people, but that paradigm is shifting. Not only is social networking impacting the way people expect to interact with companies and brands, a generation has grown up in a world where complete thoughts are expressed (or, at the very least, attempted to be expressed) in text message-sized chunks.

That’s why it makes no sense to me that you’d want to waste any of that precious opportunity by telling potential customers how about your plans for “leveraging our core competencies to impact a paradigm shift that allows us to maximize our verticals, remain on the bleeding edge, and empower our internal resources to develop scalable responses that ensure buy in from all our moving parts.”

Yet too many of us are stuck in the “big words are better” mentality. I’m a firm believer in the KIS (yes, I’ve omitted an S, because I believe Keep it Simple is anything but Stupid…) philosophy. There’s a reason why newspapers write at anything from the ninth-to-11th grade level; there’s a reason why many popular novels are written at the seventh-grade level -- it’s all about enjoyment and accessibility.

I find it more challenging to write in plain speech than to obfuscate text using business speech. It’s easy to pad a project using big words; the challenge is to say something engaging and on-target in just a few, simple words. 

(As an aside, I blame my high school English teachers [well, except Mr. McKenzie... he was amazing]  and all of your high school English teachers too – for this! How many of us had to hand in word-target essays? Even if you could make a succinct, compelling argument in 200 words, you were penalized for not reaching 1,000. That artificial line of demarcation created a whole world of empty paragraphs filled with "Therefore,” “In other words,” and “That being said,”. And many of today's writers are still trying to purge themselves of those empty words – and I’m just as guilty at times.)

So how can we get better? There are two key ways: one is to write, re-write, and write again. As with any task, the more you do it the better you become. And if you have the luxury of having a good editor* on hand, then ask for help and advice from him or her.

But the best way? Read. Read everything.

  • Start with the news – after all, the news media’s goal is to create attractive-yet-informative titles to draw you into their article. Then, once they’ve got you that far, they want to create a compelling lead to ensure you keep reading. Is that really any different than what you’re doing in business? Do you not send out e-mails and create Web copy with the same goals -- a headline or a subject line that entices your customers to learn more? Seriously, is there a more evocative term out there right now than “Fiscal Cliff”? In just two words, the media has created a term that provides you with a visual framework upon which you can base your understanding of the situation. I don’t profess to know much about economics, but I do understand that falling off a cliff is bad. Really bad.
  • Become a sports (journalism) fan – Don’t like sports? Too bad. Learn to love the writing. Some of my greatest inspiration comes from sports writers who have to spend day in and day out (often season in and season out) coming up with new and exciting ways to tell the same story over and over. I love hockey, baseball, basketball, and football and have been a fan of those sports for years – so I read those writers regularly to see what tools they’ve employed to entice me into reading something about which I’m already very familiar; I don’t particularly like soccer, and cricket and rugby leave me perplexed – but I’ll still read writers of those sports, because if the content they create can engage me (especially if I’m indifferent or don’t understand the sport), then they’re doing a great job.
  • Appreciate what you don’t like – It’s easy to read things that interest us and are not overly challenging. And while we can learn from those, we can’t grow. By reading other types of content (technical writing, industry-specific content, newsletters and news regarding topics of which we don’t have a vested interest), we can expand our vocabulary, understand different audiences, and improve our ability to tailor our messaging. Successful simple business writing doesn’t mean using the same style and vocabulary for each and every customer; it means finding the right message for the right audience in the way that best meets their needs.
  • Appreciate the less-than-classics – Look, I’ll admit it. I used to be a horrible culture snob, looking down upon those “popular novels” and “popular songs” as not having the same value as the classics, or so-called more challenging entertainment. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to appreciate all forms of art. There’s a reason why things are popular, and as business writers, communicators, and editors it’s behooves us to learn why. And, not surprisingly, when you open your mind to all forms of entertainment, you grow – I can appreciate Shakespeare (who, in his own time, was chastised for being less-than-elite entertainment) and Gilbert and Sullivan; I recently re-read The Divine Comedy after completing the latest Sookie Stackhouse book; and while I prefer The Beatles and Sloan, I’m not offended that Justin Bieber rules the charts.

In the end, I hold more contempt for the snobby than the uneducated. The latter can be excused for not having the opportunity to be exposed to diverse content; the former has only itself to blame for its self-imposed limitations. Just as the theatre snobs will look down upon the so-called “dumb-jock” mentality of some sports fans; so too should they be chastised for limiting themselves to “approved” forms of media. Saying “I don’t watch TV” doesn’t make you a more worldly person; in fact, it just means you’re depriving yourself of another way to experience the world – one that’s no better or no worse than books, stage, music, or art.

A good business writer doesn’t have to like everything they experience, but they should appreciate it all. There are lessons to be learned in works from such diverse artists spanning the spectrum of William Butler Yeats to Cecil B. DeMille to Carly Rae Jepsen.

Your words are a window to your business, like a street-front display to a retail establishment. You wouldn’t want to clutter it with empty boxes, so why obscure your message with empty words? And if you want to figure out the best way to present your wares, don’t forget to check out how others prepare their displays.

*A good editor, especially in the business world, is hard to find. A good editor is one who will subjugate his or her own ego in favour of the betterment of the work. Sadly, in business, the approval process often involves a bunch of non-editors (or, worse, those who think they’re editors) marking up a document with “personal preference” edits or changes just to show that they’re “doing something.” A good editor removes themselves from a document; a bad editor inserts themselves into it.


Questions Answered

How do I improve my business writing?

What does KISS mean?

How do I write in plain speech?



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