Why is Business Writing Bankrupt?

Now that nearly all businesses have discovered the internet, business writing is booming. With the click of a mouse, clients can ferret out product and service descriptions, corporate policies, investment information, and job descriptions. Search engines have become life rafts to keep us all from drowning in a sea of corporate verbiage. But does what we read hold our attention, satisfy our desire to know, or compel us to action?  Or has too much of business writing gone the way of collateralized debt obligations—neatly packaged, but empty of value, bankrupt?  

Many have deplored the sorry state of business writing, urging that something be done. Graduate business schools have strengthened programs to teach MBA students how to avoid gobbledygook in the workplace, but apparently with little success. Not convinced? Click around a bit. Take a look at how businesses typically describe themselves. How far down the page must you scan in order to even learn what a business does? One becomes bleary-eyed by cataract-inducing claims to “integrity,” “great customer service,” “guaranteed low prices,” and “innovative solutions.” Job postings are no better with their repeated use of “leverage,” “maximize metrics,” “drive partnerships,” or “drive [fill-in-the-blank]. (Indeed, “drive” must be the hip HR buzzword intended to convey a [false?] sense of urgency and ambition. One can drive a car or even drive cattle, but how does one “drive” relationships? Are clients cattle, merely to be herded?)

Who writes this stuff? Better: who allows it to be written and published, and why? Some folks, such as Jason Fried, have speculated about this latter question, suggesting that bloated, vapid writing occurs when people have nothing distinctive or, perhaps, true to say. But if all businesses sound alike, if they all say similar things about their products and services, their poor writing is costing them money, lots of it. Why does senior management allow this to happen?

One obvious answer is that executives simply don’t have or take the time to review their subordinates’ writing carefully. Well enough. But I think there are two other possible answers to the question: one rather benign and the other not.

What We Learned in School

The benign answer entails what most of us learned in school. Beginning in high school and continuing into college—at least for those of us who had teachers who compelled us to write (sadly, a shrinking minority)—we learned early that abundant use of the passive voice and abstract, multisyllabic words would easily expand 2 pages of barely logical ideas into the required 10 pages. Undoubtedly, this is not what our teachers intended us to take away from their instruction! Still, critics have long pilloried academia for inculcating such awful writing.

Calvin & Hobbes: Writing

Some might even argue that academic writing is worse than business writing. I concede the point, but without retracting my contention here that business writing is generally bankrupt.

Bankruptcy of Valueless Content

The less benign explanation of why business writing is so awful is insecurity of the sort arising from having nothing distinctive or true to say. Have you ever noticed that business competitors describe their products or services in nearly identical terms?

All accounting firms extol their unshakable integrity; banks, their extraordinary customer service and resources; software companies, their cutting-edge innovation; insurance companies, their rock-solid financial stability and helpfulness; discount chains, their guaranteed lowest prices; and so on. Battered customers could easily mimic most of the ad copy for entire business sectors.

Unless a business’s products or services are truly distinctive when measured against competitors, marketing copywriters are stuck with underwhelming, abstract generalities (except for the occasional marketing gimmick). If a business has no clear answer to the questions, “How is our product/service different?” or “Why should a customer choose us rather than a competitor?” writing suffers accordingly, and companies then rely on cleverness of media design. More disturbing, I can’t help wondering how many business writers thoroughly understand their organization’s distinctiveness well enough to be able to describe it in powerful, energized, compelling prose.

Moral Bankruptcy

Poor writing, usually marred by passive voice, vagueness, and excessive jargon, also results from unwillingness to assume responsibility or to tell the truth. Unforeseen mistakes are made, accidents unexpectedly happen, indecipherable market forces compel downsizing. Executives never admit guessing wrong (or worse) for fear of having to pull the ripcords on their golden parachutes. Passive-voice and ambiguous writing decrease intensity and diffuse blame. No wonder that, when things go badly, public relations officials are at a loss for forceful words! Which of the following two statements are you most likely to see in a press release?

Today, the Curly Shoelace Company announced that declining market conditions have resulted in reductions of 1,200 positions. Corporate spokeswoman, Henrietta Hack, explained, “This downsizing was made necessary by unforeseen market forces. By acting decisively in response to a situation beyond our control, the company will be better positioned to take advantage of any ensuing economic recovery.

Dudley Do-RightOr . . .

Today, Mr. Dudley Do-Right, CEO of Curly Shoelace Company, announced layoffs of 1,200 workers and recounted the circumstances leading to this tragedy. “We thought we could compete better by introducing a new line of l0w-cost shoelaces. We gambled and lost. Because of our error, some 1,200 of our loyal employees will lose their livelihoods at least temporarily. We hope to be able to welcome them back if things improve in the future.”

Which alternative retains a sense of authenticity (even if it does cost the CEO his job)? Which alternative actually reinforces the impression that the company acts with some integrity and empathy?

What Might Be Done?

As distracting as they are, deficiencies in the mechanics of writing such as incorrect grammar, poor word choice, or excessive jargon are not the major problem. (After years of correcting undergraduate papers, I cannot believe that I just wrote that last sentence!) No, the major problem is one of executive policy: there must be a determination and commitment to tell the truth about any business, to tell a true story and tell it well, if marketing copy is to command attention and create a sense of respect. As George Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Moreover, those who tell a business’s story must do so with a customer’s or client’s perspective in mind. After all, who is the intended audience (as my high school English teacher repeatedly nagged)? Why write anything at all if not to communicate with clients or colleagues?

In his posting for Inc., Jason Fried points to one business owner who goes to extreme lengths to provide customers with needed and relevant information. That company is Saddleback Leather Co. Dave Munson, the owner, explains how leather is treated and then invites customers to shop his competitors by listing links to several:

Do you think that our competitors would actually put a link to our website on theirs?  I’m so confident that you’ll find our classic look and over-engineered durability so hard to resist that I want you to shop around.  Go ahead… the more you shop, the better we look.

So confident is Dave in the quality of his product that his tag-line is one of the best ever: “They’ll fight over it when you’re dead!”

Hiring good writers might help, even if a business intends to conceal information from customers or the public. But, in the end, that won’t suffice. Only having something distinctive and true to say forms the necessary foundation to better writing, especially if it is writing in the service of promoting a business.

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