Why is so much writing in business so bad?

Nearly everyone in business complains about bad writing, yet we all contribute our share. Instead of "I gave an employee a raise," we prefer "I utilized a new incentive structure to maximize his productivity." Is there a meaningful difference between "we need to think about creating a new profit-maximizing model" and "we need to make more money"? And why do we insist on qualifying ("on the other hand"), signposting ("as we've seen"), and adding a suffix like "-ize" to change a perfectly lucid verb (use) into an eye-rolling cliché (utilize)?

The most popular answer is that we use clunky words to sound smart. In one poll, nearly two-thirds of 110 Stanford undergraduates admitted that they "turn to the thesaurus to choose words that are more complex to give the impression that the content is more valid or intelligent." As Scott Adams sarcastically writes in The Dilbert Principle, "If you want to advance in management you have to convince other people that you're smart. This is accomplished by substituting incomprehensible jargon for common words."

Most style guides recommend avoiding jargon. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White famously insist that writers "omit needless words" and substitute simpler phrases for complex ones. In a few experiments, the psychologist Daniel Oppenheimer manipulated a piece of prose and found "a negative relationship between complexity and judged intelligence." When we try to sound smart on paper, we end up looking dumb in reality.

Another theory is that we intentionally obfuscate to fit in. When we stuff an email with clichés, we're signaling to clients and colleagues that we speak the same language. Of course, every human activity, from ice fishing to psychology, naturally develops a parlance to help enthusiasts communicate ideas. Imagine if a psychology professor had to explain Pavlov's experiments in detail instead of simply citing them (Pavlov, 1902) or using a phrase (classical conditioning). Yet we typically deploy jargon to conceal the fact that we have nothing meaningful to say. Seasoned executives and managers as well as avid business-book readers can identify truisms and platitudes. In an attempt to fit in, we sometimes alienate.

How can we make it better?

In the recent release The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker argues that one barrier to clear writing is self-conscious writing. Instead of explaining an idea honestly, we worry about being wrong, so we qualify and hedge. It's a symptom of defensive decision making: We opt for an ambiguous and impersonal phrase ("one could argue") over a clear and honest phrase ("I think we should") to avoid irritating the wrong person.

The brilliant and non-pedantic advice that Pinker gives in The Sense of Style is far ranging. Here are just three suggestions adopted from the book.

Don't Apologize

Self-conscious writers love to point out that a difficult problem is, well, difficult. So much so, in fact, that it takes them an entire paragraph to start discussing a solution. Do emails and pitches like the one below sound familiar?

The problem with big data is extremely complex. Many people in business struggle to understand how it is influencing the economy. Some people even debate the precise definition of "big data." Understanding how big data will change business is a tedious challenge.

We should assume that anyone familiar with big data is intelligent enough to know that it isn't easy to define, and that it's difficult to foresee how it will change a business. Instead of acknowledging these monotonous issues, we should explain how we are going to address them.

Avoid Shudder Quotes

Have you noticed how we use shudder quotes to acknowledge that an idiom is overused? "Let's 'peel back the onion' on that idea," "We're going to 'sharpen our pencils' and get better results," "Let's 'blue sky' this project." Writers who deploy these clichés seem to be saying, "I'm smart and I write well, but I couldn't think of a better way of putting it. Please don't think I'm stupid."

If you're not, why not use your big brains to avoid clichés? As Pinker says, don't be squeamish about word choice. If you're not comfortable writing it, don't write it or find a better word. We can't have it both ways.

Avoid Hedging

What happens when we need to communicate an idea that may not bode well with everybody? We hedge. As Pinker puts it, "Many writers cushion their prose with wads of fluff that imply that they are not willing to stand behind what they are saying, including almost, apparently, comparatively, fairly, in part, nearly, partially, predominantly, presumably, rather, relatively, seemingly, so to speak, somewhat, sort of, to a certain degree, to some extent, and the ubiquitous I would argue."

The alternative to this Cover Your Anatomy strategy is the So Sue Me strategy. There will always be fussy colleagues who will not give a charitable reading to an unhedged statement. It's best to ignore these scrooges if you can. And while it's true that we should qualify some statements--we're thinking of you, lawyers--we should avoid hedging when we can.