Gobbledygook. Twaddle. Gibberish. All these words mean the same thing to me — unclear writing. With 72 percent of news consumers reading their news on their mobile, the pressure on business communicators to hook (and retain) their readers has become extreme. This blog contains five tips to make your writing clearer so you (and your readers) find more time for the sweeter things in life.
Strive for shorter sentences
Memory tests show the human mind can’t absorb more than eight consecutive letters at one time. Also, newsreaders consulting information via their phones typically linger no longer than five seconds per link. Without dumbing your work down, keep readers’ attention with digestible sentences, preferably, not exceeding 20 words.
Avoid jargon — use plain English
Clear business writing also means avoiding jargon and promotional language. The Plain Language Institute defines jargon: “a language of specialized terms used by a group or profession.” Ask your team to rephrase sentences and ideas using lay person’s terms (and in a way a child might understand). This step may appear to dumb down your writing, but premium business publications, like the Economist, follow this rule. Item 2 on their suggested style guidelines is “never use a long word when a short one will do.”
Use specifics versus vague language
Corporate marketers adore vague and promotional language. Alas, these tendencies make for muddy and boring writing. Bottom line: You risk losing your reader. Often, I ask clients/sources to specify how their product/business/campaign differs from competitors — what specifically will result from XYZ? What’s at stake? If the source can’t answer clearly, then perhaps rethink the actual business plan. No story (or campaign) can succeed without details and specifics.
Also, as you dig for depth from your leaders/experts/clients ensure that you:
- Craft your questions in a way to generate an in-depth response.
- Avoid closed-ended questions that will yield a yes-no response.
- Divulge a little something about yourself to help relax the person you quiz.
Use active versus passive voice
Avoid making your business writing resemble a wet towel by swapping passive phrases with active ones. Passive structures avoid directly stating the doer of the action. So, “flights were canceled today…” versus “American Airlines canceled flights today.” And, “The ball was hit by Billy,” versus “Billy hit the ball.” While passive voice contains no grammatical error, your sentences become shorter and livelier with minimal passive. The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers excellent tips for eradicating passive structure from your business writing. You can also program Microsoft Word to detect passive sentences as part of your spelling and grammar check.
Employ design techniques
More news and PR organizations employ design techniques used in corporate business writing, specifically subheads and bulleted lists. Why? Because these techniques work. By breaking up the content and providing more white space, your reader can skim and retain the core points. If using bullets in your business stories (and even your emails given that two-thirds of Americans opened their emails via their mobiles in 2016), follow some simple, quick rules:
- Maintain consistent grammar
- Use only one or two lists per message; less is more
- Strive to make each bullet point 1-line long; the crisper, the better