Read an Excerpt
Writing That Works
“Too many of the communications I get are meaningless,” observes a leading CEO. “They don't help me understand what action the writer wants me to take. They waste my time.”
We could fill a dozen pages with complaints of this sort. “Unclear, poorly written, or confusing” is the verdict of vice presidents of two hundred major U.S. companies on a full third of the business writing they confront. New York's Commissioner of Education, frustrated that so many of the letters and memos passing through his office were “confusing” or “did not answer questions quickly enough,” ordered his 250 top officials to take a course in writing. And so it goes. It adds up to a chorus of laments that so few people can put a thought into words that make it clear, state it precisely, and take no more of the reader's time than is called for.
Yet clarity, desirable as it is, is not the goal. The goal is effective communication'writing that works.What does the reader need to know to comprehend your report and endorse its conclusions? To approve your plan, and pay for it? To respond swiftly to your e-mail? To send money for your charity, your candidate, your product or service? To invite you to a job interview? To make the right business decision?
You're not likely to get the results you seek if your writing is murky, long-winded, bogged down by jargon, and topsy-turvy in its order of thought. Just as unproductive is what two Stanford professors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton, call “smart talk.” Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1999, the professors identify smart talk as a major obstacle to taking action in business. A characteristic ofsmart talk is that it is unnecessarily complicated or abstract (or both). People seldom act on what they cannot understand. Good results are even less likely if you flood the reader with information that isn't organized to lead to an action or isn't relevant to a grasp of the subject.
Even the federal government is starting to recognize the benefits of simple, clear writing. The Securities and Exchange Commission inaugurated the plain-language movement by ordering mutual fund companies to rewrite their prospectuses. The Veterans Benefits Administration trained employees in its insurance division how to write more clearly, and the response rate to its letters increased'saving the agency $500,000 a year.
Companies are seeing how confusing communication ties up their service centers, and how clear communications makes them more efficient and competitive.
One executive suggests a discipline'putting down first what you want the reader to do, next the three most important things the reader needs to understand to take that action, then starting to write. When you're done, he suggests asking yourself whether if you were the reader, would you take action on the basis of what is written.
To get action from busy people, your writing must cut through to the heart of the matter. It must require a minimum of time and effort on the reader's part. The importance of this increases with the importance of your reader. At any level, readers are likely to be swamped either with paperwork or a twenty-four-hour-a-day stream of e-mail, or both. Junior executives may feel obliged to plow through everything that comes their way. The president doesn't'and damned well won't.
A senior executive says this about a client:
His desk is usually absolutely clean, but I know that somewhere in that man's life there's a tremendous pile of paper. If I want him to read the memo himself, I'd better get right to the point and I'd better be clear, or he'll just pass it along to somebody else, with a testy little note asking for a translation.
The better you write, the less time your boss must spend rewriting your stuff. If you are ambitious, it won't hurt to make life easier for people above you. Bad writing slows things down; good writing speeds them up.
The only way some people know you is through your writing. It can be your most frequent point of contact, or your only one, with people important to your career'major customers, senior clients, your own top management. To those women and men, your writing is you. It reveals how your mind works. Is it forceful or fatuous, deft or clumsy, crisp or soggy? Readers who don't know you judge you from the evidence in your writing.
Their judgment of you specifically includes the evidence you give them in the e-mail you dash off. It comes as a surprise to many people that readers of e-mail do not abandon their standards just because they are looking at a screen rather than a piece of paper.
“Because it's just e-mail,” says Christie Hefner, CEO of Playboy Enterprises, “people think they don't have to be grammatical or spell things right or take the trouble to write well. It's very annoying.”
Slapdash comes across as slapdash, wordy as wordy, and poor spelling and grammar as signs of ignorance or sloppiness.
It is best to stick to standard English usage and to observe the conventions of spelling and punctuation. We advise this not out of academic fussiness but from observing how things are. If you write “it's” with an apostrophe to signify the possessive of “it” (wrong), instead of the contraction of “it is” (right), not all readers will detect your lapse. But those who do may be the ones who count. There still seems to be some correlation between literacy and seniority.
Important matters are usually examined in writing'either in a paper to be studied privately, or in a formal presentation. It isn't enough that you know all about your subject. You must make yourself clear to somebody who has only a fraction of your expertise. Above all, you must express your point of view persuasively. We have seen hundreds of papers that assert a point of view with energetic enthusiasm, but astonishingly few that make a persuasive case. Often enough the case itself is a good one. But the writer self-destructs in any or all of the ways we go into later on.
“It is an immutable law of business,” said the former head of ITT, Harold Geneen, “that words are words, promises are promises, but only performance is reality.” By itself, good writing is no guarantee of success. But words are more than words, and poor performance can often be traced to poor communication. Your ability to write persuasively can help you get things done and arrive at your goal'today, this month, or during the decades of your career.