Clearly, concisely and with feeling

By Rupert Morris

Financial Times 11/8/93

The trouble with business people is that they think they can write. Or, even if they know they cannot, they dare not admit it.

But when I say someone cannot write, I am not branding them illiterate. All I am saying is they do not do themselves justice on paper. Some of the most entertaining people can transform themselves into plodding bureaucrats when their words appear beneath a letter-heading.

Need writing training?

I recently came across an engineering company that addressed its customers as “your goodselves”. And it was only a few years ago that my former bank used to end its letters with: “We have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient servants.”

When the chief executive of my present bank wrote to his customers to assure us of his personal readiness to respond to criticism, I took him up on the offer. Since I teach effective writing courses, I also offered my help. The letter I received came from the head of development and training operations – a title that carried its own warning of impending verbosity.

Jones (not his real name) thanked me for my letter, and went on to explain: “At this moment in time, the group continues to invest heavily in training and development initiatives that contribute to the advancement of our challenging business objectives. The development of employee potential is a major focus of these programmes. Our leadership and management competence training addresses a very wide range of personal management and leadership skills development.”

All Jones means to say here is: “The bank already runs training courses for its staff.” But instead of a single sentence with a single verb and two or three nouns, he wastes his time and mine employing between 20 and 25 nouns, depending on whether you count nouns used adjectivally.

It takes him another two paragraphs to explain why he believes he has no need of my writing services. “Over the past few years we have built up a comprehensive training infrastructure to support the diverse and changing needs of our business…”

Writing that does the job

The point is not whether or not this kind of verbiage is to your taste. The point is it does not do the job. If Jones wanted to give me the brush-off, he could have done so politely in one or two concise sentences. And I would not have bothered him again. As it was, I wrote back to the chief executive. I received a letter from the Senior Manager, Customer Relations, thanking me for my “thoughtful thoughts”, and acknowledging “the need for us to better train our people at a rapid rate”. His letter concluded: “Should our ongoing audits of our internal training effectiveness prove a need for your company’s input, we will let you know.”

Effective communications

I would say the need was pretty urgent, wouldn’t you? This bank is not alone in the inability of its employees and executives to communicate in writing. I was conducting a writing course at one of Britain’s leading accountancy firms when I came across the following sentence: “[The firm] achieves a high level of continuity on audits by using clear succession plans which emphasise the importance of developing lasting relationships.”

I translated this as: “The firm knows the importance of continuity. We will not chop and change our auditing team.” “Oh, no,” they said. “We do not use words like ‘chop’ and ‘change’. They sound … well, almost slang.” And so it goes on.

Too many people in business dare not be clear. They dare not commit themselves and do not want to sound over-familiar. We cannot be too careful, they think.

Paradoxically, such excessive care can be dangerous. When obfuscation becomes a habit, communication suffers and, in due course, so does the decision-making process.

There is a popular misconception that the written word is not a tool of communication but a means of bolstering the image of your company or department. Hence the proliferation of abstract nouns and vague, phrases – such as “a highly developed service network”, “an extensive client support function” , “designed-in delivery flexibility” – that sound grand, mean next to nothing and keep real people at arm’s length.

Hence also the epitome of grandiosity for its own sake – the mission statement. Robert Fritz, the US management guru, told a London audience last month he had only seen two meaningful mission statements and one was from a group of nuns.

Clear communications matter

Happily, there are exceptions. Tiny Rowland always made his annual report statements to Lonrho shareholders pungent, intelligible and informative. And when Sears made cuts last year, chief executive Liam Strong used his interim report to explain the situation with exemplary frankness. Media and markets reacted alike, impressed by the clarity of thinking. At a difficult moment in the company’s development, the share price rose.

Good business writing is not a mystical process, nor is it some rare gift. It can be learnt. It springs from simple principles, such as identifying your purpose, considering your reader and checking repeatedly for relevance. But the first essential is recognising that bad writing springs from lazy thinking. And that does require a rare quality – humility.