Better business writing

I try to write clearly and have always encouraged my students, and my former analyst colleagues, to do the same. This is because: i) it’s polite to make things easy for your reader (whom you should think of as a client); and ii) it improves communication, so is more likely to achieve the goal you had when you wrote.

I get disheartened at many aspects of modern business writing but what particularly irritates me are the clichés and vacuous phrases that unfortunately often start in the finance world. When I read that something is a “wake-up call”, or that somebody “talks the talk but can they walk the walk”, that there is “an elephant in the room” or, worst of all that they need to “think outside the box”, I get depressed then angry. When people write or speak these phrases, it means they’re not really thinking; they’re just mindlessly recycling the words.

“Thinking outside the box” is supposed to mean doing something original, innovative or creative. But somebody who uses that expression has already failed, they’ve given up, their mind is already so stuck in the conventional, dreary wisdom that it’s very unlikely they will ever have an original thought or come up with an innovative way of doing things.

Journalists pick up these phrases, which tend to originate in the US, and use them to show how fashionable and “street” they are. Expressions such as “get real”, “do the math”, “no brainer” have a deadening effect on the articles they appear in, because they’re lazy and insincere. To write clearly, without cliché and with vigorous, effective metaphors or similes, is much harder.

Other irritating favourites are: low-hanging fruit, reach out, touch base, crash and burn, pro-active (which usually just means, er, active), traction (a favourite at JPMorgan for some reason) and the use of leverage other than in a discussion of capital structure. In fact, the most vacuous term of all time has to be “we must leverage our core competencies”. I would probably fire anybody who used that expression to me, on the grounds that their brain had gone to sleep.

There is also the use of unnecessarily complex words and phrases. My all time least favourite, which is a finance (equity) classic, is that something will “negatively impact” earnings. The word “hit” is shorter, more lively and perfectly does the job. I think this expression crept in during the early 1990s but it might have been around in the US earlier. It has now become a mainstream term in the UK media. “Impact” was originally a noun. US usage often differs from “British” English and a lot of useful innovation comes from there that gets adopted because it works. But to turn “impact” into a transitive verb typically makes a sentence longer and stops the writer picking a more specific and vivid verb.

A friend who works for Reuters, who are highly professional and experienced at effective written communication, tells me their training includes an emphasis on choosing the right verb and avoiding adjectives. Look at some of their stories and you’ll see how well they’re written, in fact so well that we take it for granted. The same is true (though the style is different) with The Economist. A useful exercise is to delete all adjectives in your essay or report and then see how many you really want to put back. Most are probably redundant or just embellish the text. A very few may be useful but can often be replaced by a better chosen verb.

I teach a session on effective business writing on the MFin, based on what I do for JPMorgan’s equity training programme. My recommendations are summarised in a few presentation slides. I recently came across McKinsey’s internal guide to good writing. It mostly gives the same messages but, characteristically for a management consultant, the guide is over 30 pages and I doubt anybody has ever read it all. Good intentions but flawed delivery.

Here are three suggestions for further reading. First, the excellent weekly column (Mondays) by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times covers all manner of idiocy, bad faith and sheer stupidity in the business world. In the past Lucy has skewered several global companies over the crass, inept or just plain comical press releases or internal guides they publish (including, I have to admit, JPMorgan Chase).

Second, George Orwell wrote a brilliant essay called “Politics and the English Language” which, although its subject is political writing, offers a timeless six-point guide to good non-fiction writing. It’s available at:

http://wikilivres.info/wiki/Politics_and_the_English_Language

Lastly, The Economist style guide is a very useful and well thought out source for all manner of questions about clear and effective writing. You can buy it as a book but it’s available (even to non-subscribers) on their website:

http://www.economist.com/research/styleguide/

2 Responses to Better business writing

  1. “To turn “impact” into a transitive verb typically makes a sentence longer and stops the writer picking a more specific and vivid verb.”

    True, and suggests that it was not you who wrote the legend for your photo on the Judge Business School home page: “Inspire. Innovate. Impact.”

    • I haven’t objected to the home page slogan for fear of being thought a pedant but it’s good to know I’m not the only one who has noticed it.

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