What's wrong with business writing?
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.