“People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with bad.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson
I wonder what the famous New England sage would have thought of what passes for business communication in today’s world. Imagine his consternation trying to wade through this message from a company manager (thanks to an Associated Press article on business schools taking aim at bad writing):
“It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps.”
Translation: “I’m the training director.”
What’s happening there is an all-too common violation of a communication skill rule that I hold dear and emphasize repeatedly when I do business communication training: You must write to edify and not to impress. Said another way, business writing should be inclusive and not exclusive.
Consultants often write to impress by using phrases (and I’ve actually seen these in print) such as “dashboard measurement,” “gated communications,” “proactive synergy” and “pain point.” Nowhere does the “writer” explain what he is trying to say. The reader, a busy small business owner trying to decide if she needs a consultant to help market her service, has been excluded because the writer is trying to impress her with inside language — ponderous, audience-unfriendly and even arrogant.
Then there’s the matter of lazy reliance on trendy cliches. One absurdly overused phrase is “apples and oranges” to demonstrate how two topics of discussion cannot be compared in any useful sense. I’d like to suggest that we go back to plain and thoughtful English whenever possible and say something along the lines of, “But we have to look at those two issues separately,” or “Comparing those two problems can be misleading.”
If that’s not good enough, I have an idea. Let’s change fruits. How about this? From now on, instead of “apples and oranges,” let’s make it “Jamaican passion fruit” and “West African seedless pomegranates.” Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?
Then a year from now, we can get adventurous and try, let’s say, cheeses. Can’t you just hear it? “No, no, no. That’s like comparing Abbaye de Mont des Cats with Doppelrhamstufel!”
Finally, the Associated Press told us in a recent story on the drug company Merck that its infamous (withdrawn) painkiller Vioxx, is the “global poster child for drug safety concerns.” What?!?! Aren’t poster children the victims? How did we get from a smiling little tyke in braces on a March of Dimes poster to a drug that increases the risk for heart attacks and strokes? To be sure, that’s not strictly business communication, but, in typical monkey-see-monkey-do fashion, I’ve heard the phrase “poster child” in many a business setting.
It’s like sportswriters telling us with mind-numbing frequency that some athlete or team has “taken it to the next level.” Is anyone thinking out there?
My point: Business writing, particularly when email turns all of us into writers, is the face that you regularly present to your co-workers, bosses, subordinates, customers (existing and potential), vendors and partners. Stick with straightforward, unadorned English that respects your readers. That is business communication at its most professional.
The Bridge To Somewhere
Being a bit of a political junkie, I often find myself Nyheter och media admiring the way office seekers try to stay “on message” despite the constant demands for “news” from the baying hounds of the media pack. One of our finest journalists, James Fallows, took a close look at election rhetoric in a recent issue of The Atlantic magazine. What he found deserves some play here because savvy politicians can show the rest of us how to deal with the annoying side of media relations, which I apply to my media training seminars — reporters who try to push us off balance.
Fallows noted that in 2008 Hillary Clinton flashed two signs that she was ready to get rid of a nuisance issue: “‘I’ve said many times…,’ so that whatever has come up can’t be news, and ‘the real question is…,’ the politician’s standard way of shifting discussion back to more favorable ground. Barack Obama’s version of this tactic is to say ‘it’s just common sense…,’ indicating that what he’s about to say is restating the obvious and reasonable. ‘Look’ or ‘listen’ at the start of an answer is his version of ‘the real question is,’ a sign that he wants to answer something different from what was asked.”