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Why Is Business Writing So Awful?

Nearly every company relies on the written word to woo customers. So why is most business writing so numbingly banal?

Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals. Basecamp, Highrise, Ba

Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals.

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What's bad, boring, and barely read all over? Business writing. If you could taste words, most corporate websites, brochures, and sales materials would remind you of stale, soggy rice cakes: nearly calorie free, devoid of nutrition, and completely unsatisfying.

One of my favorite phrases in the business world is full-service solutions provider. A quick search on Google finds at least 47,000 companies using that one. That's full-service generic. There's more. Cost effective end-to-end solutions brings you about 95,000 results. Provider of value-added services nets you more than 600,000 matches. Exactly which services are sold as not adding value?

Who writes this stuff? Worse, who reads it and approves it? What does it say when tens of thousands of companies are saying the same things about themselves?

When you write like everyone else and sound like everyone else and act like everyone else, you're saying, "Our products are like everyone else's, too." Or think of it this way: Would you go to a dinner party and just repeat what the person to the right of you is saying all night long? Would that be interesting to anybody? So why are so many businesses saying the same things at the biggest party on the planet -- the marketplace?

If you care about your product, you should care just as much about how you describe it. In nearly all cases, a company makes its first impression on would-be customers or partners with words -- whether they're on a website, in sales materials, or in e-mails or letters. A snappy design might catch their attention, but it's the words that make the real connection. Your company's story, product descriptions, history, personality -- these are the things that go to battle for you every day. Your words are your frontline. Are they strong enough?

Unfortunately, years of language dilution by lawyers, marketers, executives, and HR departments have turned the powerful, descriptive sentence into an empty vessel optimized for buzzwords, jargon, and vapid expressions. Words are treated as filler -- "stuff" that takes up space on a page. Words expand to occupy blank space in a business much as spray foam insulation fills up cracks in your house. Harsh? Maybe. True? Read around a bit, and I think you'll agree.

Luckily, there are exceptions. Wonderful exceptions. These are companies with a personality and a point of view. They care enough to have their own voice. They want to communicate, not just say something. They have a story to tell, and they want to tell it well. They write to be read.

Woot is one of those companies. Woot is a Dallas-based business that sells one item a day at a deep discount. Here is how the company describes itself on its website:

Woot.com is an online store and community that focuses on selling cool stuff cheap. It started as an employee-store slash market-testing type of place for an electronics distributor, but it's taken on a life of its own. We anticipate profitability by 2043 -- by then we should be retired; someone smarter might take over and jack up the prices. Until then, we're still the lovable scamps we've always been.

Don't you just love these people? Or maybe you hate them. Either way, I'm pretty sure you have an opinion about Woot based on this paragraph. With just a few sentences, Woot instantly set itself apart from the liquidation crowd.

Indeed, how the company communicates is a big part of how Woot built such a successful business. Woot's deal of the day sells out just about every day. I especially love the company's response to the "Will I receive customer support like I'm used to?" on its FAQ page:

No. Well, not really. If you buy something you don't end up liking or you have what marketing people call "buyer's remorse," sell it on eBay. It's likely you'll make money doing this and save everyone a hassle.

It's kind of kidding and kind of not. Some people may be offended, but big deal. Woot isn't trying to sell to every customer. It's trying to sell to the customers that can laugh along. Those are the people who understand what Woot is about. The company uses language as a filter.

Another favorite of mine is Saddleback Leather in San Antonio. Dave Munson, the company's founder, clearly loves his products and his words. Here's how he sets the scene when describing the quality of the company's bags:

You know how when a magician exposes to the world how other magicians trick people, all of the other magicians get mad at him for spilling the beans? Well, I'm about to spill the beans and ruin it for all of those companies trying to trick you into buying their not so high quality leather...You're about to learn what to look for and what to look out for as you shop for your next leather piece. By the way, if I soon die by a chopstick to the neck, you'll know why. I'm a marked man.

He then dives into great detail about what makes a great leather bag great. From the type of leather and where it comes from to how it's tanned to breakable versus nonbreakable parts ("How much is a billion dollar submarine with a plastic hatch worth?") to the number of seams, and so on. It's compelling and interesting. It holds your attention.

And check out how he explains his guarantee:

All of our products are fully warranted against all defects in materials and workmanship for 100 years. If you or one of your descendants should have a problem, send it back to me or one of my descendants and we'll repair or replace it for free or we'll give you a credit on the website (be sure to mention the warranty in your will).

Consider his choice of words. A 100-year warranty that his descendants will honor if one of your descendants needs a repair. And then he reminds you to include the warranty in your will. Who wouldn't want to do business with this guy? And it's all backed up with the Saddleback tag line: "They'll Fight Over It When You're Dead." Beauty.

When you're done reading this article, hit Google and search for leather bags. Then read through some of the sites you find. I bet you'll be bored to death pretty quickly. Then visit Saddleback's site. I bet you'll be smiling just as fast.

Here's one more example of writing done right: Polyface farm in Swoope, Virginia. Polyface is run by Joel Salatin, a pioneering farmer, author, and prophet of clarity. The Polyface Guiding Principles page is a study in straightforward language with a healthy hint of attitude:

Plants and animals should be provided a habitat that allows them to express their physiological distinctiveness. Respecting and honoring the pigness of the pig is a foundation for societal health....We do not ship food. We should all seek food closer to home...This means enjoying seasonality and reacquainting ourselves with our home kitchens.

I especially love his take on what it means to be a farmer:

We're really in the earthworm enhancement business. Stimulating soil biota is our first priority. Soil health creates healthy food.

Joel knows where he stands. When you read his site, you do, too. Even though Joel is a "full-service end-to-end" farmer, he'd never say it like that. He'd consider that description disrespectful to his customers, employees, plants, and animals.

The quality of the writing on sites like Woot's, Saddleback Leather's, and Polyface's gives me the chills. It's not how they look; it's how they read. These are businesses that care about what they say and how they say it. They don't write to fill up space on a page. They write to fill up your head. There is nothing inherently interesting about liquidators, leather, or farmers. They can make themselves boring, or they can make themselves interesting. Words do that job. Woot, Saddleback, and Polyface have all chosen to be interesting and engaging. They don't hide behind jargon. They aren't insecure. They aren't afraid to tell you who they are.

I can already hear some of you saying, "Sounds great. But I can't write." So hire a writer. But make sure that writer truly understands your business. Remember: It's not about telling a story. It's about telling a true story well.

Of course, words alone won't do it. Words are two dimensional. Your products and services provide the third dimension -- depth. But when it all comes together, you've got a package that's hard to ignore.

Jason Fried is co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software firm, and co-author of the book Rework, which was published in March.

IMAGE: Laurent Cillufo
Last updated: May 1, 2010




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