Tuesday, 26 May 2009

A third of all emails are badly written, business writing needs to be better

{pp}‘I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words’
Harnessing wit, wisdom and intelligence in business writing

Bad writing is bad for business. Up to 30% of letters and memos in industry and government either seek clarification or respond to a request for clarification, according to Maryann Piotrowski, author of Better Business Writing.

How many of us cannot start our day until we have spent at least an hour clearing the emails that fill our inbox and after that sift through posted mail? And most of the messages we receive are badly written. Writing should be powerful, each word chosen with care.

Speeches by Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Sir Winston Churchill have the capacity to move people to tears, while jokes by Spike Milligan, Pieter Dirk Uys and Woody Allen with their play on words can make us laugh. Good use of language is the supreme example of an intelligent mind. Reflect on the power of Martin Luther King, Jr’s assertion that: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Or the wit of Woody Allen: “I told him to be fruitful and multiply, but not in those words.” But for most, when we sit to write a report, a business letter, an important email or an advertisement, intelligence and wit flee and bureaucratic, heavy language clogs the page and bores the reader.

BizTech CEO Liza van Wyk, whose company runs a very popular course: Business Writing: The Unwritten Rules, says, “Pomposity often gets in the way of clarity. People use big words and long sentences to try and make a point – halfway through the sentence the reader is already lost. We advise that sentences on average should be no longer than 15 to 20 words. “Paragraphs in business and academia are often long and daunting when the trend in journalism and books is to short paragraphs, sometimes only one sentence long. Shorter paragraphs create more white space, and lure in the reader, instead of frightening him or her off with dense grey text.” And there are other things that may interfere with effective communication – you might have a font or patterned or coloured paper, which makes it hard for the recipient to read your message and harder still for him or her to respond so that you can read what they are trying to say.

Cultural backgrounds and language can lead to misunderstandings and confusion. A poorly set out letter can also ensure that the most important message gets lost. In journalism, as an example, writers are told to ensure that their first sentence tells, who, what, where, why and how in no more than 25 words – try it, it’s a good exercise in saying more in fewer words. The Plain English Campaign in the United Kingdom makes the point that “because English is so rich and versatile, you can usually say what you mean in short, vigorous, everyday words which most of your readers will find familiar.” When popular American novelist Ernest Hemingway was criticized by another novelist, James Faulkner for his limited word choice he commented: “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.” Hemingway has over the years sold considerably more books than Faulkner too.

Many of the rules around business writing are about exercising manners. A few other tips include:

  • Bullet points focus the eye on key issues
  • Gender neutral language is better instead of saying he or she, say, they
  • Avoid clichés use original language to generate fresh responses
  • Don’t mark an email message as urgent if it is not
  • Don’t write in upper case unless highlighting something as upper case letters can be seen as shouting at the recipient
  • Ideally respond to emails the same day or in no more than 24 hours of receiving them
  • Don’t send big attachments by email unless a recipient has specifically requested them
  • Always send a cover page with a fax and alert a recipient by phone before sending a confidential fax – they may want to wait at the machine for it.
  • Ensure that whatever you write is laid out in an attractive, neat and clean way.

“The key thing to remember,” Van Wyk says, “is that in a globalised world, many of those we communicate with do not have English as their first language. It is important that those who use the international language of business – English – use it thoughtfully, simply and with impact.”

BizTech is a major South African training organisation based in Johannesburg. It targets executives and managers in the public and private sector for training in management, people skills, information technology and project management. Each year more than 2 000 people take part in more than 60 courses in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town. Many more receive specialist in-house training.

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Charlene Smith Communications (Pty)Ltd
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