Blog in 08 2012.
We’re not the only ones obsessed with language. So we’re gathering up the who’s who of words. First up, The Economist’s Robert Lane Greene and the advice he’d give to budding writers.
What goes wrong with business writing? There are many technical diagnoses for the problem (too many words, the wrong kinds of words, the wrong delivery). But the answers that stick out to me have more to do with how the writer in question thinks about the relationship between the reader and the writer. Is the reader a friend, a superior, an enemy, an idiot? Here are a few common problems:
Not thinking about the reader at all
This is the instruction-manual problem. Those who are expert in the wiring diagrams forget to write for people who don’t care about the wiring, but who only want their gadget to work simply. The specialist forgets to step outside himself, a blindness that the University of Edinburgh linguist Geoff Pullum calls ‘nerdview’.
Trying too hard to impress
A writer worried that the reader won’t realise how brilliant she is laces the text with buzzwords and jargon hoping to impress. Professional-services firms (consultants, lawyers) are particularly prone to this. It smacks of a desperate pickup attempt at a bar.
The fallacy here is that the writer thinks the customer wants to be told that the product on offer will solve his problems. The problem is that it assumes the customer is a gullible idiot, and most people – not being idiots – notice this and resent the implication.
Talking up to or down to an audience are ways of creating distance. By contrast, normal human language is informal but not slouched, funny, honest and most of all empathetic. If you convince readers that you understand them, that you’re even like them, their minds open. Once that attention is gained, the trust is maintained with plain language and honest promises. Everyday speech is the language of close relationships, which is why in The Economist we’re sometimes told ‘write as if you were writing for your mother’. Explain complex things in concrete and clear terms, but never with condescension. I’d modify that slightly, and just say ‘write as if you were writing to a friend’. With luck, you may even be seen as one.
Robert Lane Greene works at The Economist and writes their brilliant language blog, Johnson. His book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity came out in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn. But if you want to follow him, his address in the ether is @lanegreene.
‘There’s not much to a bank you know, except its licence, its computer systems and its reputation.’
That’s what Mark Taylor, the ex-CEO of Barclays, said just after the Libor scandal story broke.
Now, everyone knows trust is the beating heart of banking. Without it, a bank has nothing. It’s dead. So it’s not surprising that amid the recent crises, the chief exec’s offices at RBS, Barclays, HSBC and now Standard Chartered downed tools to set about rescuing the banks’ reputations. They were desperate to claw back the credibility lost in the IT glitches, the Libor rate-fixing scam, the money laundering scandal and now, fresh for August, these undeclared transactions with Iran.
The CEOs themselves appear. They say sorry. They say they’ll fix things. The trouble is, often it’s just short-term damage limitation work.
But you can lose your reputation in an instant. Winning it back takes much longer, and can depend on the tiny details.
These crises are a beautiful opportunity to take the bull by the horns and change the culture of the bank from the inside out in a way that will stand the test of time.
Now we would say this, wouldn’t we, but language is one of the best tools any bank has to do that. It’s a reputation-building Swiss army knife.
The thing is, language is in everything a bank does. Right in the internal belly of the bank, it’s the emails each employee writes, it’s every HR document, it’s the policies, the intranet, even the employee welcome pack. Those nooks and crannies of the bank are the culture its people experience every day.
And on the outside it’s far more than the veneer of advertising. It’s the website, the press releases, the letters to customers and clients, how the bank writes to you when you make a complaint, and the Ts and Cs on the very back page of the current account brochure.
The global bank that takes its language seriously will find their reputation rising head and shoulders above the rest at a time like this.
Who’s it going to be?
‘Kind regards’. Fatuous, sententious, and perfectly clipped, in an English sort of way. Oh, and omnipresent. Why on Earth do we keep slapping these cold wet fishes onto the end of our emails?
In workshops at The Writer, we get people to think a lot about not just what they say, but how they say it. Because all language creates feelings. And we often forget this at work, because we’re a bit caught up in figuring out what we’re saying (which is understandable – that’s mostly what we’re paid for). So while we might spend ages trying to get the big stuff right, to make it sound just how we want it, it’s the little stuff that lets us down. Because we think nobody notices.
But they do. There’s a world of difference between an email that starts ‘Dear Mr Jarvis’ and ‘Hello Oliver’. And these choices we make, often without really thinking about them, tell us loads about how we see our readers, our roles and our relationships. It’s easy to see why we should focus on first impressions. But what about the lasting impression?
Next time you email someone, have a think about it. Do you really want to leave them feeling you’re an ‘All the best’ kind of person? ‘Kind regards’? You might as well just write ‘Whatever...’ because that’s how it sounds. And most of us prefer normal to formal. Because most of us would rather feel that we’re working with a living breathing human being. Not somebody who still thinks they have to write like they were taught at school.
Me? I think a simple ‘Thanks’ or ‘Cheers’ works pretty well. It’s what I’d say. And when I get an email that ends like that, it doesn’t sound unprofessional. It sounds like a human being. Not like my posh auntie, who gives Hyacinth Bucket a run for her money.
Why not tweet us your favourite sign-offs, and the ones you (love to) hate?
Kind regards, best wishes, all the best, regards, many thanks, yours insincerely...