It’s mission-critical to be plain-spoken, whether you’re trying to be best-of-breed at outside-the-box thinking or simply incentivizing colleagues to achieve a paradigm shift in core-performance value-adds. Leading-edge leveraging of your plain-English skill set will ensure that your actionable items synergize future-proof assets with your global-knowledge repository.
Did that paragraph make you cringe in horror, as it did me? If not, you have a long way to go to perfect your business writing skills. A concise, fluidly presented new book from Harvard Business Review Press, HBR Guide to Better Business Writing by Bryan A. Garner, offers help for those who have fallen into the trap of turgid, jargon-filled business writing. The book gives direct, clear instruction on how to hone your business writing and help purge your prose of the clichéd jargon on display in the paragraph above. The book is lean at 200 pages. I’ll boil it down further,
1. Know why you’re writing. Be clear about your objectives, including the audience you’re addressing and the goal you want to achieve. State the goal convincingly in each sentence of your prose. Example: Your firm wants to break its lease in an office building that violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to install wheelchair ramps and automatic doors, but you want to stay on good terms with the landlord. Garner offers an elegant sample that includes this sentence. “Although we have no doubt that your oversight was a good-faith error, we hope that you understand why we can’t stay in the building.” He captures three goals at once: to explain that you’re breaking your lease, to spell out why you’re justified in doing so, and to preserve a good relationship with the landlord.
2. Understand your readers. Know that no one has time to waste. Get to the point quickly, focus on what’s relevant and use a tone that fits your audience. Imagine you’re writing to someone who is smart but not a specialist in your field. When Warren Buffett pens his annual report, he pretends he’s writing it for his sisters who are smart but not experts in finance. “To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform,” Buffett writes in his preface to the SEC’s Plain English Handbook.
3. Write your first draft quickly. Garner says writing preparation can involve four different processes he calls Madman, Architect, Carpenter and Judge. The Madman does the research, the Architect organizes the material, the Carpenter writes the first draft and the Judge edits and tightens. When it comes to the writing stage, Garner says it’s best to barrel through a draft without waiting for inspiration or perfecting as you go. If you’re stumped by a section, skip it and finish the next part or the whole piece before circling back.
4. Revise and edit. Garner offers a series of questions you should ask yourself when going over your piece: Have I told the truth? Have I said all that I need to say? Have I been fair and diplomatic? Do I have a clear, concise opening? Have I proved my points with specifics? Have I avoided lame repetition? Do I close my piece clearly with prose that sounds fresh? As for editing, he says writers should ask themselves whether it’s possible to save words, hone phrasing, make the piece more interesting, and make the sentences flow.
5. Be relentlessly clear. All good writing instruction repeats this refrain: Show, don’t tell. In other words, illustrate your points with specifics. Example: You want to say someone in your company is a bad boss. Rather than making that general statement, say something like, “He got a promotion based on his assistant’s detailed reports, but then—despite the company’s record profits—denied that assistant even routine cost-of-living raises.”
6. Don’t waste words. Garner offers ways to trim wordy passages. Delete prepositions, especially “of.” For example, change April of 2013 to April 2013. Replace words ending in “ion” with verbs; Change “provided protection” to “protected.” Get rid of filler like “in terms of.”
7. Never use business-speak. See the first paragraph of this story and don’t use any of those awful phrases. Stay away from trite expressions like “mission-critical,” “hit the ground running,” and “think outside the box” and words like “leverage” and “impact.” I actually disagree with Garner that these phrases are always bad. Sometimes it can be useful to be trite, but only if you do it thoughtfully, aware that the expression is overused and you’re choosing it for that reason. The most important lesson here: be direct and thoughtful.
8. Relax and find the right tone. Avoid stuffiness by using contractions. Vary the length and structure of your sentences so the reader doesn’t think your piece was written by a robot. Do use courtesies like “thank you” and “we appreciate,” and personal pronouns instead of formal language like “the decedent.” Also lose the sarcasm. Do write as though you’re talking to the person face-to-face.
Susan Adams, Forbes Staff