Tag Archives: english language

7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.7

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3) Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4) Writing well saves everyone’s time

5) Writing well can give full expression to your great ideas

6)   The process of improving your writing forces you to clarify your ideas

7)    Good writing makes you look good

Write well and you can get away with a multitude of other failings. If I’m totally honest I would say that throughout my life I’ve been able to get away with being lazy, incompetent and on more than one occasion quite frankly dissolute, simply because I can write well.

People are impressed by the ability to put words together in the right order. It happens with oratory (just ask Tony Blair) and it happens with the written word. It comes back to the point that business is all about personal relations and if you can express yourself eloquently people are more likely to read what you have written, to accept your opinions and ultimately to warm to you.

It certainly helps if you can back up your words with rigorous research, incisive analysis and genuine expertise – just as it’s usually best to remain sober when writing – but it’s not altogether necessary. The power of writing is such that it is enough, on its own, to make you look good.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.6

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3) Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4) Writing well saves everyone’s time

5) Writing well can give full expression to your great ideas

6)   The process of improving your writing forces you to clarify your ideas

Good writing is not only a result of clear thinking; it is also a cause of it. The process of writing forces you to plan and structure your thoughts, to clarify exactly what you mean, and to make your case in a logical and persuasive way.

Very often when I’m writing an article or a report I will change my opinion on the subject during the writing. You might expect this would happen during the research – that I would read around the subject, speak to experts, and then form an opinion – but that’s not always the case. In fact very often I find that where I do form an opinion at that stage, once I start writing I find all sorts of holes in my argument.

Pushing half-baked opinions and viewpoints through the white heat of the writing process can cut out our lazy assumptions, it can make us rigorously question our beliefs, and it can drive us to nail down exactly what we want to write. The outcome is that when we do write it, we are much more confident and vastly more compelling.

Sometimes the result of this process is that I discover I don’t have anything worth writing. I find out that my view on the subject is either hackneyed or ill-informed. In those cases I stop writing on the subject. At least it’s me who finds that out, not my readers.

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7 Reasons Why Good Business Writing Matters: No.4

1) Writing poorly is rude to your readers

2) Bad writing makes you look bad

3)    Bad writing leads to misunderstanding

4)    Writing well saves everyone’s time

Badly written documents tend to be long, dense affairs that take hours to read and often do more to confuse than to clarify. Instructions remain unclear so either the reader goes ahead and probably does the wrong thing or they have to go back and seek clarification from the writer. Either way this adds in time to the project. Someone somewhere has to pay for that wasted time.

The brief is unclear so either the company wastes time producing a proposal that fails to meet the mark or they have to go back and seek clarification. Again, poor writing adds in unnecessary steps. It makes business less efficient.

Think of any type of written business communication and in every case writing well would save time and increase efficiency. Of course  it takes  time at the beginning to learn how to do it well, and then it requires that little extra effort planning, crafting and editing the  document to get it right first time, but it saves time in the long run.

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The five types of non-writer

This post is part of my series on business writing. In the last post I concluded by saying that over the 15 or so years I’ve been in the business world I’ve identified five types of non-writer.  Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. Here then are those five types:

1) The busy executive

Most likely to say: “I would love to have the time to write – in fact when I was younger I used to want to be a journalist – but now I’m too busy with proper work to focus on writing well.”

The busy executive type sees writing as subordinate to proper work. They tell themselves that it would be lovely to have the luxury of time to express themselves well in writing, but the simple fact is that they live in the real world. And the real world is about making money.

What these busy executives fail to recognise is that writing well isn’t just something that it’s nice to do, but is an essential part of business success. Perhaps they imagine we business writers are some kind of romantic Byron-esque characters too caught up in musing on a fey phrase to sully our minds with commerce. They’re wrong. Business writing is writing with the goal of doing business more effectively – business writing is about making more money.

2) The meetings specialist

Most likely to say: “I’m more of a people kind of person”

We’ve all met people like this. People who are fluent and articulate in person, but seem unable to translate that into their written communications. Often you wonder if it was really them who wrote the document.

Very often these people are quite capable writers, but they either freeze up when presented with a blank page and feel that they would rather just have another meeting, or they don’t have enough time to dedicate to writing well because they’re rushing off to their next meeting.

Good writing can never replace face-to-face communications, but it is an essential complement.

3) The corporate waffler

Most likely to say: “I prefer to see writing as a way of empowering my stakeholders in a synergistic progression towards the organisational achievement of strategised goals across territories.”

How did the business world start to speak and write like that? Who knows? Who cares – the more pressing point is that it needs to stop. Right here, right now, we need to get hold of these people and shake this virus out of them. We need to make it crystal clear that speaking in incomprehensible jargon and management speak is neither clever nor acceptable.

We need to see through it, to realise that very often people use it as a way of covering up the fact that they have absolutely no idea what they’re talking about, and we need to challenge them on it. Ask them exactly what a strategised goal is and how it differs from a normal goal.

More than anything else we need to save these people from themselves. After all, it can’t be any sort of fun having to speak and write like that day in, day out.

4) The zeitgeisty tweeter

Most likely to say: “Chill out dude. It’s like 2010 now.”

In some quarters concern over writing is seen as almost quaint. To some people the idea of planning a written communication, taking care over its production and then rigorously editing it reeks of dusty libraries and tweed jackets with patches at the elbows. To these people punctuation and spelling are about as relevant as the Corn Laws.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for 21st Century communication and I can blog, tweet and post with the best of them, but I see no reason why living in this super-fast, always-on world should in any way be incompatible with writing well. Indeed I believe it makes it all the more important. We have so little time to make our point that we need to marshal our words as well as we possibly can.

5) The deliberate obscurantist

Most likely to say: “My style just isn’t that simplistic”

This is the only type of non-writer who really gets on my nerves. The others I can understand, even empathise with to some extent, but the deliberate obscurantist – those people who consciously try to confuse readers, who purposefully hide meaning behind mangled language – I have very little time for.

Thankfully they are few and far between, but sadly they do exist. They know what they’re doing and they know that it’s wrong. It’s time we all recognised what they’re doing and stopped them getting away with it.

So those are the five types of non-writer. Which one are you? Post a comment or send me an e-mail to let me know. Have I missed any? Do you know of any particularly good examples of any of those types?

Over these last four posts I hope I have made it clear why business writing matters so much to me. I’ll now move on to explain why I believe it ought to matter to you.

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Improving business writing skills

I am not one of those writers who sits in his garret grumbling to himself about the shoddy writing skills of those around him. Far from it – I’m actively out there in the business world, grumbling to people’s faces about their writing skills.

Well, I prefer to call it “training courses” and “coaching sessions” rather than “grumbling”, but whatever we choose to call it, the fact is that over the years I have trained hundreds of people on business writing skills, and I have coached many more on a one-to-one basis.

These have tended to be people who work in public relations, and so they are better at writing than most businesspeople. But still a surprising number of them write poorly. All too often they produce e-mails, letters, briefing documents, memos, meeting notes, proposals, press releases, marketing copy and so on that is lifeless, dull and hard to read. In my courses I show them where this is happening, I explain why it’s happening and I give them practical techniques for putting it right.

It’s a part of my work that I enjoy – it’s a lot of fun to spend time working with bright people who are experts at what they do and are keen to sharpen their writing styles – but it’s also given me a really good understanding of the common mistakes that people make and the opportunities they tend to miss.

It’s remarkable how often the same ones are repeated. The English language is a vast and complex thing, and there are many thousands of errors that can be made with it, but in the world of business we all tend to make more or less the same ones.

The first mistake that many make is simply approaching writing in the wrong way. All too often businesspeople don’t see writing as relevant to them. They see  it as an activity apart from what they do or who they are.

Over the past 15 years I’ve worked with thousands of businesspeople. I’ve worked with marketers, salespeople, recruiters, public relations experts, training consultants, and some truly brilliant entrepreneurs. I’ve dealt with people who are good at what they do, but struggle to explain themselves because they can’t write. In that  time I’ve identified five very common types of non-writer. Of course everyone has  their own personal view on writing, on how relevant it is to them and their work, but these five types seem to crop up very frequently, and be responsible for a lot of the bad  writing out there. In my next post I’ll tell you what they are….

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Why me?

In my last post I began my long-term series on business writing. I began by outlining my thoughts on why I’m writing this series. Here I move on to outline why I believe I’m qualified to offer this advice…

Why me?

There are two reasons why I feel qualified to write this blog/book, and to give you advice on how you can improve your business, your career and your life through better writing.

Firstly, it’s because I’m a good writer. I have spent the last decade earning a living as a freelance journalist for the trade and business press. In that time I have written about almost every subject you can imagine for the A to Z of business and trade publications: Accountancy, B2B Marketing, Call Centre Focus, Director, Ethical Performance, First Voice, Growing Business, Hourglass, The Independent, ……ok, I struggle with “J”, but no doubt there is one, and anyway I’m sure you get the point.

I have also written three books. The first “How to Grow Your Business for Entrepreneurs” was published by Pearson in July 2009 and in its first six months sold more than 3,000 copies worldwide. It was soon followed by “365 Ways to Cut Costs” published by the Director of Social Change. Towards the end of 2010 Pearson will publish my latest book “Brilliant Online Marketing”.

So, writing is what I do. Even before I became a writer I relied heavily on writing to succeed at anything. My only “proper” job was at an agency that found new business for marketing agencies. I joined as a graduate trainee and within three and a half years I was the Client Services Director, recruiting, training and managing a team of 20, and responsible for a client base of £1.5 million.

I knew very little about marketing, and I don’t think I’m a particularly gifted salesman, but I was able to achieve this fairly rapid success because I could express myself both on paper and in person. Similarly, all the way through school and university, the ability to write well has covered up a whole host of other shortcomings.

I was lucky that my parents taught me the basics of the English language at a young age, and that I had teachers who encouraged me to write (I had a great A-level history teacher who didn’t worry too much about details like dates and names, so long as I told a good story with my essays!), but the point is that writing is very much a skill that can be learnt. Just as I can learn to play a better cover drive, so we can all become better writers.

Sure, I will never be Brian Lara, but to be entirely frank nor will I ever be Scott Fitzgerald. It doesn’t matter. I only need to last a few overs against a village team a dozen Sundays a year, not score multiple centuries against the world’s best bowlers week in, week out, and none of us need to describe the glittering parties and glacial cruelty of the Jazz Age with the exquisite beauty that Fitzgerald managed – we just need to be better able to organise and our thoughts in writing so that our colleagues, clients, suppliers and so on can better understand us.

That level of writing ability can be learnt. I have learnt it and I believe that in this book I can teach it to you. Partly because I know how to do it, and partly because I know how to teach it….

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Breaking the silence

Sorry about that.

The silence I mean.

I’ve been away, I’ve been busy, all that, but the real reason I’ve been silent is that I’ve been thinking long and hard about what I should be writing about in this blog, and I’ve been planning what I’m going to write about. It should come as little surprise then that what with all this thinking about writing and planning writing that I’ve decided I’m going to write about writing.

It is after all one of the few subjects I really know anything about.

Over the next year I’ll be using this blog to write my next book – Good Business Writing – and this broadly is what I’ll be covering:

1. Why I’m writing this
2. Why writing matters in business
3. No one writes in the same way
4. The process
5. The fundamentals of the English language
6. What to include and what to leave out
7. Writing clearly
8. Bring your ideas to life
9. Making your writing flow
10. Inspiring your readers
11. Common errors to avoid
12. Putting this theory into practice

I’ll cover a chapter every month with 4-8 posts. Each chapter will be around 3000 words and will contain theory, examples, and real-life case studies of people who’ve succeeded in business by doing this well.

And lucky blog readers you’re going to get all this free! All I ask in return is that you give me feedback – tell me what works, what doesn’t, what you agree with, what you disagree with, what I’m missing out and what I’m covering in too much detail.

So, let’s begin….What do you think to this idea? Will you read it? Will you tell others about it? Is there a need for a book on business writing? Has someone already written one that you can’t see me bettering? What do you think to my content? Anything I’ve missed? What would you find useful in a book like this?

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Are your media spokespeople doing this? Question 2

Are your media spokespeople answering questions directly, clearly and succintly?

They probably say they are. They probably even think they are. But very, very few people I interview do this well.

Some never quite address the question head on, even when it’s giving them a great chance to sell their company, product or services.

Some lose their message in a welter of empty jargon, management-speak, and general verbiage.

Others just talk. Sometimes even before I’ve asked a question they’ll launch into a speech and on they’ll go. They’ll talk and talk and talk and talk, ignoring my desperate attempts to enter the conversation, just a torrent of words flying out until I’ve lost the will to live, let alone write down whatever it is they’re waffling on about.

The thing is most people aren’t even aware that they’re falling into any of these traps. They think they’re doing a great job. So, help them out – listen in on the next interview they do, and see for yourself whether they are genuinely answering the questions directly, clearly and succintly.

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The Death of the English Language

Here is the text of a talk I gave last Thursday evening to my Toastmaster club – London Corinthians. Let me know your thoughts….

(NB. All characters are entirely fictional, apart from my Dad who is entirely real, but would never be that rude about the leader of the Conservative Party)

Everywhere I go people tell me that the English language is dying.

I was in the pub the other day with my mate Dave who was incensed by the careless way people use apostrophes (I know – I really should get myself some more interesting mates).

“I was driving past B&Q the other day,” he said. “And they were offering to sell me BBQ’s WITH an apostrophe. Everywhere you look people are throwing in these apostrophes – CD’s, 1980’s. It’s even on proper road signs now!”

“Road signs?” I asked.

“Yes! I was driving down to Somerset last weekend. I was relaxing and enjoying the country views, when I drove past a sign telling me this road was unsuitable for HGV’s. There’s no apostrophe in there. Is there?!”

“No,” I said, nodding vigorously. “Certainly not.”

“Well why do they keep putting them in there?”

“I don’t know,” I said, before quickly finishing my pint and heading home.

But before I got home I had to pop into the supermarket to pick up some bits. I joined the nine items or less queue, and as I stood there wondering whether or not Dave was right and the English language is indeed going to Hell in a handcart, someone tapped me on the shoulder.

It was an elderly lady. “Have you seen that sign?” She pointed at the sign above the till.

“Yes I have,” I said, and politely pointed out that I only had three items.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “But it’s wrong isn’t it? The sign. It says ‘less than nine items’. Anyone with half a brain knows it should be ‘fewer than nine items’.”

“Yes,” I said. “Of course it should.” Before I was summoned to the till.

Back home there were yet more people brimming over with rage at the deterioration of our language. Mum and Dad were staying for a few days.

“Look at this,” shouted my Dad as soon as I put my head round the living room door. He was pointing at the TV where he was watching the news.

“What? What’s happened?” I asked, immediately worried that something terrible had happened.

“This Cameron fellow,” said my Dad. “He’s an absolute imbecile.”

I looked at the TV to see the Leader of the Opposition grinning in full interview mode.

“Agreed,” I said. “What’s he done now?”

“He keeps on telling me I know what he means. Y’know. Y’know. Y’know. That’s all he says! Well I don’t know, do I? If I did know why would I be sat here listening to him give this ruddy interview?!”

You see what I mean?

Everywhere I turn there are people telling me that the English language is dying. And it is a worry, especially for me as a professional writer. If the English language dies then I’m out of a job!

And that’s part of the reason I love coming to Toastmasters. Here I’m amongst fellow language lovers.

There was a fellow at my last Toastmaster club – Manchester Orators – who was especially keen on preserving the language. Stephen was a superb speaker, a very successful businessman, and an all round good egg. I remember him giving a speech in which he told us of the day his daughter came home from university with some rather dramatic news.

“Dad,” she said. “I’ve got something to tell you. It’s important.”

“Well,” said Stephen. “You’d better come into my study then.”

“Dad, it’s this,” she said, obviously nervous. “I’m…I’m gonna have a baby.”

Stephen recoiled in shock and horror. For some time he didn’t know what to say. His daughter waited for him to collect his thoughts. Eventually he said: “You’re my daughter. I love you. Over the past 20 years I’ve paid for you to have the finest upbringing possible. You’ve gone to the best schools, you’re at one of the greatest universities in the world, and still you come here, and you have the nerve to say to me that ‘you’re GONNA’. You mean ‘you’re going to’!”

So, what lies behind all this?

Well, I recently found this rather revealing quote. It was in a book called ‘Attitudes toward English Teaching’, and the authors had spent a long time observing the teaching of English in schools. They concluded:

“Recent graduates, including those with university degrees, seem to have no mastery of the language at all. They cannot construct a simple declarative sentence, either orally or in writing. They cannot spell common, everyday words. Punctuation is apparently no longer taught. Grammar is a complete mystery to almost all recent graduates.”

Again, in his “Methods of Study in English” MW Smith said: The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.”

I’m sure that many of these people who keep telling me that English is dying would agree with that statement. The only problem is that that the first book was written 1961. The second in 1885!

Look into it more closely and you’ll find that every generation throughout history has complained about declining standards of English. People were even complaining about declining standards of English as far back as ancient Sumeria. Among the first of the clay tablets discovered was one written by a teacher in which he complains about the sudden drop-off in students’ writing ability.

The point is of course that language changes. What was important in language 30 years ago is less so now. And what is important today will be less so in 30 years time.

So, while we should all try to uphold standards and communicate as precisely as we can, we shouldn’t lose too much sleep about it. In my view, rumours of the death of the English language have been very much exaggerated.

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