Sunday, 21 May 2017

Who wants a history lesson? Well, sometimes we do

EVERY significant moment in our lives becomes background sometime in our future. Winning a key business proposal becomes background to our elevation to the board. The launch of a new product becomes background in our company's stock market flotation. Winning an industry award becomes the stepping stone to an OBE.

Background is often useful in understanding a big picture, but it's rarely the most important thing we want to express once we've moved on from that experience.

When you overdose a document with background you think is vital to understanding the big picture, your readers are likely to bin it.

So how do we use background information constructively?

The trick is to recognise the difference between 'essential context' and 'interesting background' and to use them at different points in your document.

Here's an example from The Guardian's business section.


1,100 Jones Bookmaker jobs at risk as private equity deal collapses

JONES Bootmaker is expected to call in administrators on Friday in a move that will put more than 1,100 jobs as risk. 
The shoe retailer, which employs 1,145 people, has nearly 100 stores and a handful of concessions in department stores. It is understood to be close to going under after a deal with a private equity firm collapsed. 
Jones's difficulties came... (the story continues for several paragraphs, until the final one...) 
Jones has humble beginnings. The business was launched in 1857 by Alfred Jones and his wife Emma who opened their first store in Bayswater, west London, before expanding nationwide. The Bayswater store opened from 8am to 8pm, and until midnight on Saturdays, while the pair looked after 11 sons and three daughters.
The second paragraph is essential context. It gives us the scale of what's about to happen and the immediate reason why the company is taking it's next step. It tells us why we should think of this as an important business story.

It's the second paragraph because we don't want readers to wait long for this context. But it's not so important that we need to start with it.

The final paragraph, a snapshot of the company's history. counts as interesting background. If we don't have room to use this, we can cut it and lose nothing that stops us understanding the company's move into administration — the main focus of the story.

Sometimes we can offer background in a trickle, instead of a lump. Here is another example from The Guardian.


Jaeger collapses into administration putting 680 jobs at risk

Fashion chain Jaeger has collapsed into administration, putting 680 jobs at risk.
The brand, which dressed Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday, had been trying to find a buyer to keep its 46 stores going, but its owner threw in the towel on Monday and appointed administrators.
The private equity owner, which dates back to 1884, has appointed administrators at Alix Partners after proving unable to find a buyer for a suggested price of £30m.
If we take out the coloured text, we would still grasp the essence of the announcement while losing some interesting background. And that's the key to understanding the role of background and where we want to place it in our document.

What do we lose if we leave information out? 

If the answer is nothing, you can tuck it away at the end of your piece or cut it.

If the answer is that we'd lose important context, find a place for the information in your second paragraph. But keep it brief and tightly expressed.

Forget about the timeline of events and tackle the essential points you want to make. Only then will you find the right way to tackle background.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Five classic business writing mistakes you can easily stop making


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 READERS

Having 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 CLARITY

When 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 WORDS

Impress 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.