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Enough Is Enough
A Public Service—Business Writing 101
None other than the Harvard Business Review reports that the ability to communicate is the number one trait top executives possess. The ability to communicate trumps ambition, education, sound decisions, and a capacity for hard work. It’s too damn bad the folks on top can’t delegate their talent.
Way too many business people cannot write. How well I know. My eyes glaze over at their attempts. Check out most corporations’ mission statements and you’ll need a café latte with an extra shot of espresso. Here’s a snoozer for you:
“We strive to globally provide access to multimedia-based intellectual capital and efficiently simplify effective sources to stay competitive in tomorrow’s world.”
And here’s another statement from a major car manufacturer though you’d never know it from the message …
“(Well-known acronym here) is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stockholders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.”
Little old Tom isn’t the only writer put off by corporate gobbledygook. Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 New York Times piece by Kelley Holland, “In Mission Statements, Bizspeak and Bromides.”
“Imagine three people who have landed new jobs, each at a different company. All three come to work on their first day breathing fire and decide to read their employers’ mission statements.
One is exhorted to strive “to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential.” Another is encouraged to “be the best in the eyes of our customers, employees and shareholders.” The third is urged to participate in “bringing the best to everyone we touch.”
Could you tell that the first person works at Microsoft, the second at American Standard and the third at the Estée Lauder Companies?
I didn’t think so.
Mission statements have become ubiquitous since Peter Drucker and others popularized them in the 1980s as a way for companies to articulate their highest purpose. Worldwide, 85 percent of large companies have them, according to a 2006 study of management tools by Bain & Company.”
And now every company has to have a mission statement. I swear it would not surprise me if Felix the Cat has a mission statement. In fact he does and here it is:
“To grow from humble origins into a dynamic entertainer more popular than movie stars and to be the most recognized feline in the annals of media, along with having my likeness extend to toys, print media, dolls, and jewelry.”
Let’s do Felix a favor. Let’s give him a decent mission statement: “To be a funny and successful cartoon superstar.”
There. Much better.
I’ll not turn this column into a screed on writing, just a plea for some sanity. After all I am doing the pubic a service. How can we keep businesses from putting us in a coma with information seemingly written by robots? More to the point why do business people insist on putting us to sleep using words such as “implement,” “facilitate,” “utilize,” and my favorite, “functionality?” It’s rampant. Chew these mouthfuls until your jaws ache. The stale taste is hard to swallow. Nor is it nutritious.
“Our veteran team of professionals maximizes systems of strategic IT processes.”
“As a leading-edge enterprise we focus on ownership of teamwork assessment validation assets.”
Pray tell just what in the heck are they saying? I see a lot of business rhetoric that’s dreadful. My job is to breathe life into it. Sometimes I have to get an oxygen tank or two to rescue the moribund messages.
Businesses hire me to write marketing literature, Power Point narratives, speeches, trade journal features, news releases, website content, tag lines, white papers and more. I do my best but that’s when the real work begins. Why?
Because ninety-nine times out of one hundred the copy I give clients gets worked over by a committee. God forbid an attorney or a person who “studied English” is part of the committee. A committee is fine for setting company goals and procedures and planning picnics but it turns deadly when asked to perfect a message. Don’t believe me? A committee designed the platypus, which by the way is extinct. Thanks to committees I have to resuscitate dead messages more than once.
What are the symptoms all this ailing content presents? Corny slogans and more. A businessman told me he would write his company’s tag line. He wrote a tag paragraph seventeen words long filled with buzzwords. Try putting that on a key fob or ballpoint pen. Unusable.
The business world falls in love with jargon and buzzwords and just has to use them. It creeps into their blood too. A company president called me and asked a question. “Do you have any bandwidth at 3 p.m.?” My first thought was that he needed to know if my Internet provider could handle huge files at precisely 3 p.m. but that wasn’t what he meant. In love with the latest buzzword, “bandwidth,” he meant, “Do you have time to meet at 3 p.m.?” Why not just say that?
Other “buzzphrases” of recent vintage include “value-added,” “end-to-end solutions,” “from cradle to grave,” “at the end of the day,” “big data, “the cloud,” “leverage,” and “synergy.” You’re not corporate cool if you don’t toss buzzwords around like a CEO in waiting.
Why do business people succumb to such temptations? Lots of reasons. Writing friendly informative messages seems incompatible with sounding “corporate.” They value volume over clarity. Time is short. They fail to give writing the attention it needs. Good writing is labor intensive. It takes nurturing.
A monkey see, monkey do attitude prevails. All too often business people want to sound like and be perceived as uber-successful. Thus they mimic bigger companies who fall prey to the same bad writing habits. They plagiarize the concepts and words of competitors. Often when given an assignment I’m told to go look at so-and-so’s website. “We like what they say. We want to sound like them.”
Other mistakes that breed bad writing? Arrogance. “We’re number one because we make you number one.” “When you choose a leader like us you choose a winner.” “We’re the best at what we do.” “It’s obvious you recognize a leader” and on and on. (Boastful copy turns people off and away.)
Imprecise and Illogical Language. Many times I’ve heard top executives say, “We had good success with that strategy.” Really, well do tell us about the bad success you had.
Inability To Articulate. It astounds me when an executive cannot tell me what his company’s product or services do. It is more common than you think. “You’re the writer: make us look good.”
Lately I’ve seen politically correct thinking enter business writing. Don’t use words like “race” and “discriminate” I’m warned. They dredge up, well, issues. Last time I checked many words have different definitions. Trust me. It’s okay to use such words.
How can business leaders better express what they do? Follow some simple guidelines. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Sound like a human being. Avoid buzzwords and jargon. Stay humble. Don’t be repetitive. Avoid corporate clichés such as “team,” “leading edge,” and that overworked mule, “professional.” (We all know what the world’s oldest profession is.) And most of all remember that people just want to know what you can do for them in a straightforward manner.
Now and then I come across a company that writes with personality. How refreshing! They have what writers call voice. They tell stories about what they do. They don’t drone on and on mimicking a larger competitor who despite its success drones on and on as well. You actually want to read their stuff. You get the feeling they know what they are doing and that their products and services are great. Now isn’t that the goal all businesses want to achieve. You know, “good success.”
Here’s a good mission statement: Mary Kay Cosmetics — “To give unlimited opportunity to women.”
There! Short and sweet.
The so-called good success depends on good writing but bad writing? That must be where bad success comes in and once bad writing becomes acceptable it tends to stick around and drag down the brand. And that’s not just bad success, that’s disastrous.
- Images: Buzz Word Cloud - found it and can't tell - probably came from Wordle.net - that's where I'd make one. Let me know if you find it and I will apologize. Felix the Cat - that image has been around - might have originally been drawn by Blitz Graphics at Devianart.net, but hard to be sure since, well, Felix has been around. Camel by Committee Getting It By the Ass - that's another tough one - we don't know. Google seems to discern that it came from TheRikkiProject, so we are giving them a link, but think they got it from some other place - a book, maybe. We'll take it down with an "I'm sorry" or give someone a proper credit or $5, which ever is greater. Let us know if you find who created this image.