BUSINESS writing should be engaging, not boring. It should be packed with passion and purpose, not taken from a blueprint everyone else uses. It should get your juices flowing, instead of making you yawn.
We need individuality to be successful in business. Cookie-cutter imitations of someone else's drive and enthusiasm are a recipe for disaster.
Yet our courage often fails us when we write for business purposes, and we fall into one of several traps that keep us stuck in the crowd.
1. WE SEPARATE WRITING FROM OUR 'REAL WORK'The love of writing may not be what makes you bounce out of bed each morning. Your passions may lie in science, fashion design, technology, engineering or one of many other disciplines.
Your writing is still vital to you. It can help you to big success, or it can be your undoing.
THE MANUAL ROAD TO BANKRUPTCY
A computer manufacturer lost $35m in a single quarter and eventually went out of business. Why? Customers bought a new line of the company's computers, and then rushed to return them because they found the instruction manuals to be badly written to the point of being incomprehensible.A one-off horror story? Not really.
REINVENTING THE PESTICIDE
An oil company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a new pesticide, only to discover the formula had already been created five years earlier — by one of the same company's technicians. His report was so poorly written that no one had finished reading it.Ouch!
It's all to easy to forget how important writing is to business success. When you align your words to your passions in life, and realise the important of harnessing them to your bigger purpose, you naturally become a better writer.
2. WE FORGET ABOUT OUR READERSHaving strong purpose for our career goals and business interests is a great start towards powerful writing. But we need to link our interests to the goals of our readers too. Sometimes we may even find a purpose that hasn't yet occurred to them.
In My Fair Lady, the musical film version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, cockney sparrow Eliza Doolittle wants to learn 'to talk proper' so she can get a job in a flower shop, instead of selling on the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Her accent and command of English aren't up to scratch and linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins takes on the task of teaching her to speak well. It goes badly. Eliza just doesn't get it.
When she's on the cusp of giving up, Higgins gives Eliza a purpose beyond a job in a flower shop. 'Just think what you're dealing with,' says Higgins. 'The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds. And that's what you've set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.'
Eliza is stunned. This goal hadn't remotely occurred to her. But now she understands. Moments later, her voice is fluid and eloquent. She rises to the challenge, stretching herself past the mechanics of voice. Eliza sets out with a small goal, but rises to a bigger challenge offered by a mentor with a grand vision.
It's fiction, of course, and fiction has to make more sense than real life. But it's not an impossible dream. When we focus on using our writing to extend our readers' ambitions in the way that Higgins inspired Eliza, our words help to expand the world we work in.
3. WE LACK CLARITYWhen we think well in business, we write well. We have clarity in what we want to say and how to express it. When we lack clarity, the answer lies with our thinking more than it does with any flaws in our language skills.
Great writing generally comes from knowing far more than we use. The act of leaving out information forces us to decide what is useful and important, and what is irrelevant. We may think it a waste to accumulate knowledge and then decide not to use it, but we are using it to make a conscious decision based on careful thought.
Nothing is wasted. It is simply focussed into a laser beam. And we've added gravitas.
When we have muddled thinking, we ramble and struggle for the elusive clarity we long to find. We write a sentence or a paragraph, and it feels as if we're stretching for something, an important point that has yet to emerge. So we write another sentence, another paragraph, in the hope that this one will round off our thought. It rarely does.
We end up with a host of language flaws, partly because we're using more words, sentences and paragraphs than we need. And we're wasting our readers' time, expecting them to plough through our confused thoughts.
When we have laser focus, we have the confidence to write a sentence or paragraph that makes our point. Instinct tells us we're right, and we move on, sure that we're on track.
When we lack clarity, we should go back to research, working out what our readers need to hear, and planning our structure.
Don't write until you're confident about what you need to say.
4. WE WRITE LONG'MIND THE GAP' says a lot in only three words. We don't see 'PLEASE MIND THE LARGE, DANGEROUS GAP' at railway stations because adding more than we need dilutes our message.
Writing concisely demands that we couple clear thinking with a forensic approach to our choice of words. If a word, sentence or paragraph adds nothing, cut it.
Readers will be grateful. And when you next write to them, they'll open your document with anticipation, not dread.
5. WE RESORT TO JARGON, CLICHE, AND POMPOUS WORDSImpress readers with your message, not with long, grandiose words and industry jargon. Readers may expect gobbledegook in business writing, but they'll write songs about you if you keep your writing simple and clear.
Jargon feels attractive, but it can be your downfall.
Business icon Richard Branson, a man you would hardly describe as an underachiever, has blogged about the need to avoid jargon. Branson has dyslexia, dropped out of school at 16 and went on to notch up various business highs and lows. His Virgin group holds more than 200 companies, including space tourism company Virgin Galactic.
'A few years ago, we were looking into investing money in a financial company,' he wrote. 'The person I was talking to said: "We only have a five per cent bid offer spread." Later, I asked one of my team what the guy was talking about. He explained they were using jargon as a way of hiding the fact they were stealing five per cent before we even started.'
Jargon is no friend. In one crucial aspect, writing is the same as any other craft or profession. Ask a perfumer what they are trying to create with a new fragrance and the answer will be 'simplicity'. An architect, aircraft engineer, or a car designer will each give a similar answer.
Simple is good.