Last year something happened that made me realise the urgency and importance of raising the standard of writing in UK business. I was speaking to someone I’ve known for many years. He’s a quite brilliant entrepreneur who has built and successfully sold a series of businesses. On this day, however, he was angry.
He was furious at the work a design agency had done for him. “It’s nothing like I wanted,” he raged at me. The design work was for a website that needed to launch the following week. He’d been relying on this agency to produce the design he wanted, and in his eyes they’d let him down. This was a significant problem for him.
“How could they get it so badly wrong?” he continued. “It’s all in black and white in my briefing document. I explained exactly what I wanted, and they’ve completely ignored me! Tell you what, Alex, you take a look at the briefing document and then see what they’ve sent me. You’ll see what I mean, you’ll agree with me. Idiots!”
I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d got myself embroiled in this dispute. I’m no expert on design. (Far from it in fact – everything I draw looks weirdly like a pig.) What’s more this was nothing to do with me. But he’s a friend, and it sounded like he needed someone to agree with him. And he was pretty angry. So I told him I’d take a look.
One glance at the briefing document and it was immediately obvious what had gone wrong. My friend might have spent a long time putting it together, but what he had produced was about as clear as mud. It was long-winded, repetitive, padded with empty jargon and words that sounded impressive but actually meant very little. In several thousand words he’d managed to explain almost nothing. He’d produced something that looked like a briefing document but which was so badly written it gave the agency no brief whatsoever.
Sure, the agency should have gone back to him to clarify the brief, but they were probably too scared. I’d already discovered earlier that day just how intimidating he could be when he’s angry. I discovered again later that day that he can get even more terrifying when someone tells him he’s done something badly. He wasn’t at all happy when I told him the project had failed largely because his briefing document was badly written.
The experience might not have helped my friend, but it was a revelation for me. It struck me at that moment just what a problem the lack of writing skills in business is. It is widespread: my friend is not the only businessperson in the UK to lack sufficient writing skills to express himself successfully. In every industry, at every level, up and down the country, I believe that people are struggling with this.
They might not know they’re struggling with it. They probably ascribe the occasional frustration, the less than exceptional outcomes, the failure to engage and inspire colleagues, clients and suppliers, to something else. After all writing ability isn’t something that we tend to pay much attention to in business.
I strongly believe that by paying more attention to it, by improving their writing skills, businesspeople could improve their day-to-day performance, their working relationships, and ultimately their outcomes.
I’m not talking about people who’ve never learnt the basics – this isn’t a remedial book. I’m not talking about people who need to write for a living – this isn’t a specialist manual for journalists, copywriters and the like. I’m talking about normal businesspeople, who are very good at what they do, who can write adequately, but who could be even more successful if they were able to use the written word to explain, to persuade, to inspire.
So, what makes me think I can help in this area? After all, as we’ve already seen I can’t draw (even my pigs don’t look much like pigs), and I’m a profoundly unsympathetic friend. Why should you believe I’ll be any more use on the subject of business writing?