Getting clarity – how do I write more clearly?

In all my trainings, with hundreds of professionals each year, this is the thing people ask for above all else:  How do I write more clearly?

The answer is so simple it’s almost embarrassing:  Write the way you speak.

Yes, really.

Write the way you speak.  In every document.

I don’t care whether the audience is a CEO or board or minister in government or guys on the street or a scientist.  I don’t care whether you’re writing a technical specification or a standard or a policy or an email or a website.  Just write the way you speak. 

Here’s why.

You’ll increase your credibility

Research shows that writing more like the way we speak gives us more credibility.  It makes us sound smarter.  That’s good for our career development, for our brand, for our business outcomes.

So,

  • write using everyday words – use instead of utilise, today instead of on today’s date, we recommend instead of it is recommended
  • write the kind of sentence patterns we use for speech – in a nutshell, that’s the active voice over the passive voice (and that’s a whole other article – check out this one while I write mine)

You’ll appear more confident

Confidence sells.  It reassures.  It stands out.  It gets remembered and responded to.  Studies support that expressing things confidently gets better outcomes.

So,

  • own your statements – say we think, I recommend, you should, not some have observed, it is recommended, should be considered…
  • use fewer words – the more words we use, the weaker the message. Think of an EXIT sign.  It doesn’t say Consider removing yourself from the building through this orifice in the event of an untimely or unexpected occurrence.  It just says EXIT.

You’ll revert to what comes naturally

Imagine how much simpler business communications would be if they were more like conversations?  It’s faster to write that way, it’s faster to read that way, and we can all get on with our to-do lists.  We know this for a fact.  So,

  • trust your instincts about how to express an idea – we’re all actually pretty great at communicating verbally
  • read what you’ve written out loud – does it sound like you’re actually having a conversation?

You’ll get rid of confusion and misinterpretation

When we write the way we speak we’re more direct.  The academic, legal, and traditionally formal corporate voice is a minefield of ambiguity.  It’s learned and affected and therefore not natural.  That means it’s harder for us to get right.  It’s commonly recognised that the active voice is strong from a legal standpoint.

So,

  • start your sentences with a whothe client damaged the car, not the car was damaged
  • break up long sentences – the more ideas and words in a sentence, the more opportunity for misinterpretation

As I always say in my trainings – just test it out.  Just give it a try and see what kind of response you get.  If no one mentions anything about the change, that’s a win!  It means your writing is working.  Even better, people might comment on how easy something was to read, or how quickly you’ve been plowing through the emails.  Again, a definite win.

The only caution I have is about expectations.

If you want to dramatically change the way you’re writing documents that others have to approve, give managers/reviewers/end users a heads up.

Get buy-in.  A disconnect in expectations is guaranteed to bring out the red pen – and resistance to change.

Other than that, go!

Be free!

And write the way you speak.

The formal business voice is dead

In PR we know what makes a successful apology and what doesn’t. SUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = a conversational, human approach:

Hi Shelly We’re sorry we got the date wrong for setting up the internet at your new home.  We know that was really inconvenient. Thanks for letting us know about the mistake so we could fix it.  We’ll do our best to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Thanks,Your Favourite Internet Provider

UNSUCCESSFUL APOLOGY = the traditional, formal business voice

Dear valued customerIt is with regret that we write to express our apologies for the recent error.There was an unavoidable disruption within our system due to a service upgrade.   We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.SincerelyJust Another Nameless Faceless Internet Provider

I imagine you would struggle to think of the last time you were happy to read something written in that voice.  And I’m not just talking about apologies.  So I want to say this to you:

The formal business voice is DEAD.

There is no longer ANY place for it in business today. I cannot find a single situation where the formal voice is helpful. Oh no wait, that’s not true.  There is one time:  If you want to threaten, use the formal voice. “Should the undersigned not comply with the aforementioned conditions, immediate remedial action will be undertaken.” If you want to alienate and intimidate and put the fear of god (or the courts) into someone, use the formal voice.  If you want to achieve almost anything else on the planet, use a conversational voice.

I imagine that so far you’re reading and thinking, well duh, that’s obvious.

But here’s something I’ve learned through training thousands of people to write better in business contexts:  Our writer selves don’t know what our reader selves do. You know good writing.  When you read (at work) you want clear, straight to the point, no fluff, no mucking around.  But when you sit down to write, a completely different set of knowings takes over, and we completely forget what we know as readers (or we think we’re different.  Special.  Unusual because we want those things.  We’re not – sorry ‘bout it.  Everyone wants concise, clear, direct writing). Our writer-selves believe:

  • there are unbreakable rules for good writing at work (and we learned them at school/university)
  • we’ll sound unprofessional (or unintelligent) if our writing is too casual
  • the examples of bad writing that we see all around us (that we HATE to read) are what’s expected of us in a business setting, period

Are you scared?

You wouldn’t be alone.  I may have just shaken your foundations. Alan Siegel, who’s known internationally for his work simplifying legal documents (while retaining all their legal power), describes what he does as “a means to achieving clarity, transparency, and empathy – building humanity into communications.” I LOVE THAT because right there is my issue with the formal business voice and why I say it’s DEAD:  The formal business voice removes the humanity. It takes out the people.  It takes out the you, we, us and switches to third person – the client, the user. It removes ownership and accountability and instead just talks about things “happening”, like: Mistakes were made.  [isn’t that wonderful?  They just happened.  No one is to blame.] It is recommended.  [By whom?  The universe?]

Don’t believe me?

People have been researching this stuff for decades.  And we know that a simple, conversational voice is far more successful when compared to the formal voice:

  • It’s shorter
  • It’s easier to understand
  • It’s more engaging
  • It deescalates situations rather than escalating them (the formal voice sounds pompous and the last thing you want when tensions are high is to sound pompous – cos that helps. )

Still don’t believe me?

Think about brands you love.

Think about how they write to you – by email, in agreements, terms and conditions, on the web.  They have a conversation with you.  They don’t talk down to you.  And you know what?  If THEY can use a conversational, everyday voice and drop the formality in their business writing, SO CAN YOU. The formal business voice is DEAD.  It’s old, shrivelled, fossilised. You’re not! So write like a human.  Preferably a live one.

How to be concise – strip out the fluff!

Being wordy is only good if you’re a dictionary.

If there’s one thing we know about text, it’s that messages get weaker as the word count grows.  But, flick our writer switch, and what happens?  The more concerned we are with getting our point across, the more words we use!

Doh!

We’re worried people won’t get it.  We’re worried they might miss something.  So we say the same thing over and over again, in slightly different ways, trying to cover all our bases.  All the “just in case”s.  Every eventuality.

You know what that gets us?  Really badly written legalese.

Brief = strong

The best business writing is stripped back to just what’s needed to make your points and achieve your outcomes.

So how do we strip our writing back, but still be comprehensive enough to get the job done?  Here are a few quick approaches.

Strip out fluffy, wordy phrases

It’s easy, when we’re trying to put our most professional foot forward, to take on an unnaturally wordy voice.  Because we want to be taken seriously, we try to sound a bit more formal.  Resist!

UseInstead of
toin order to
canbe able to
becauseas a consequence of
considergive consideration to

Write less formally and more conversationally

We think a conversational voice is waffly, and that’s true in one respect – we speak in very long, run-on sentences with lots of “and”s.

But if we use conversational to mean the active voice and everyday words, that will be less wordy than a traditional formal voice.

Use headings and bullets

A well-written heading speaks directly to your reader.  It engages them. The following approach forces you to think first, write second, and do that in a very focused way.

  1. Separate your thinking into key points
  2. Turn those into statement headings
  3. Then list supporting info as bullet lists beneath them

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting that you then flesh out each of those bullets into a paragraph.  The bullets are enough!  Use them as often as you can (but keep each list short – no more than 7 bullets).

Stay concise and outcomes focused and your business readers will love you for it!