Why You Don't Write So Good

Seth Godin writes:

“The reason business writing is horrible is that people are afraid. Afraid to say what they mean, because they might be criticized for it. Orwell was on the right track. Just say it. Say it clearly. Say it now. Say it without fear of being criticized and say it without being boring. My best tip is this: buy a cheap digital recorder. Say what you want to say, as if the person you seek to persuade is standing there, listening. Then type that up. “

Maybe it’s the nature of the people I typically interact with (highly educated and opinionated), but I’m not picking up on a lot of fear of communicating in the workplace. In fact, I think Gen Yers are more confident expressing their opinions that Gen Xers or Boomers before them were.

My take: Fear might play a role in it, but there are other — and more important — reasons why business writing sucks.

If your writing sucks, it’s probably because you:

  • Aren’t thinking clearly. Poor writing — and poor communication in any form, for that matter — springs from poorly formed ideas and thoughts. Too much of business writing relies on buzzwords and meaningless platitudes — which are simply shortcuts for getting at the core of an idea or thought. On countless occasions on this blog, I’ve taken someone (blogger, researcher, etc.) to task for not critically thinking through what was expressed on the blog or white paper.
  • Aren’t clear why you’re writing. If your writing sucks, you probably haven’t figured out why you’re writing what you’re writing. Is it to educate the audience? Entertain the audience? Persuade the audience? Some of all three? If you can’t articulate why you’re writing, your writing won’t be very articulate.
  • Haven’t practiced. You can sing, can’t you? But just because you can sing, it doesn’t mean you can make good music. Same with writing. Just because you can speak, it doesn’t mean you can write effectively. Good writing is a skill. You get better by practicing.  If you’re not Beethoven, you’re not going to write a great symphony on your first try. And if you’re not Seth Godin, you won’t produce great business writing just by speaking into a recorder and typing up what you said.

Speaking isn’t a substitute — nor a prerequisite — for writing. When we speak, we use phrasing, intonation, and facial expressions to help convey meaning. If you simply translate what you say into the written word, something will be lost. I can guarantee that.

This isn’t the first time Godin has written about writing. Back in January 2008 he wrote:

“Don’t let the words get in the way. If you’re writing online, forget everything you were tortured by in high school English class. You’re not trying to win any awards or get an A. You’re just trying to be real, to make a point, to write something worth reading. So just say it.”

I said it then, I’ll say it now: DO let the words get in the way. Read through it through the eyes of your audience (to the best you can), and ask yourself: How will they interpret what I’m trying to say? Am I using words that could be misconstrued? Is there a simpler and more concise way to say what I just said?

Here’s why this is so important: The ideas that win in the business world aren’t necessarily the best ideas. They’re the ones that are most effectively communicated, by the most persuasive communicators.

If you want to record and type up what you say — with all your “ums” and “likes” and the poor grammar we get away with when we speak — go for it. Your writing will suck. And my ideas will kick your idea’s ass every time.


The World's Worst — Or Best — Powerpoint Slide?

Gizmodo ran an article titled Behold, the World’s Worst PowerPoint Slide. As Gizmodo wrote: 

“It often seems like every PowerPoint slide is the worst, but here lies what projector company InFocus deems history’s most heinous. I’m inclined to agree. It’s almost brilliant in its horror. Diabolical. The arrows. The colors. This is Satan’s face.”

Here’s the offending slide:

My take: I’m inclined to disagree. 

Here’s why:  A good slide isn’t necessarily about legibility. In fact, for the most part, you don’t want people to read your slides when you present something. 

Good Powerpoint slides do a number of things. For one, they remind you what you’re supposed to be talking about at that point in the presentation.

Another thing a good Powerpoint slide does is elicit an emotional reaction. And the quicker that reaction is generated, the better.

When I look at the slide above, I can’t read a damn word on the slide. But I do have a reaction: “Holy sh*t, IT modernization is going to be really freaking complicated, time consuming, difficult, and probably expensive.”

And if you’re the CIO of a large organization, eliciting that kind of response from the senior management team is golden. After all, those bastards think your job is easy, don’t they? 

Bottom line: This is far from being the world’s worst Powerpoint slide.