With companies outsourcing everywhere and business travel on the wane, it have never been more essential to be able to write clearly. Unfortunately, many otherwise intelligent people make these credibility-killing but easily-avoided mistakes:
1. Expressing fake concern.
Many business emails, especially to strangers and acquaintances begin with a sentence like "I hope you are well." The implication is "I have expressed interest in you so therefore you are now obligated to read the rest of this message."
However, the recipient knows that you don't really care about him or her as a person, so the phrase comes off as fake and manipulative. Worse, it shows a lack of imagination to use the same opening line you'd use in a thank-you note to a distant aunt.
Fix: Either get to the point immediately or make a statement that's specific to the recipient.
Wrong: "Dear Jim, I hope that everything is going well. We just announced..."
Right: "Jim, I saw in the trade presses that your group closed the Coca-cola account. Great work! I was wondering..."
2. Using superlatives to describe yourself.
Many business people seem to think that it increases your credibility when you tell people that you are the best at whatever you do. Examples: "highest quality," "industry-leading customer service," "most experienced," etc.
Far from making you seem credible, superlatives make you sound insecure in a "methinks thou doth protest too much" way. It also makes your writing sound like ad copy from back when people thought "if it's in print it must be true."
Fix: Rather than praise yourself, cite verifiable examples where others have praised you,.
Wrong: "We have the best customer service in the business, bar none."
Right: "We've won the XYZ 'best service' award for three years running."
3. Structuring a business document like a college essay.
In college, you learned that a well-written essay begins with an introductory question, analyzes the pros and cons of an issue, and then comes to a conclusion that answers the introductory question.
Nobody in business has the time, energy or interest to read through a bunch of paragraphs in order to figure out what you're trying to say. If you don't get to the point quickly, people think you're long-winded and boring, which is the opposite of credible.
Fix: Start with your conclusion or recommendation, then arrange your arguments to support it.
Wrong: "How can we decrease absenteeism and increase productivity? There are many theories about the source of absenteeism which must be considered in order to answer this question. For instance..."
Right: "I want you to allocate $50,000 of next-year's budget to build an in-house gym, which will result in less absenteeism and greater productivity. Here's why this is a good idea:"
4. Discussing your own emotions.
Today's Facebook-centric culture has strengthened the odd belief that expressing your emotions makes you seem like you're "being real" and therefore making yourself seem more credible.
In business, however, nobody cares about your emotions unless 1) they are your actual friends or 2) they hope to use your emotions to manipulate you. So when you express your emotions to non-friends you're simply positioning yourself as a chump or, worse, fake-friendly.
Fix: Remove your emotions from the situation and address the issue directly.
Wrong: "I would be delighted to speak with you personally about this and would love to tell you more."
Right: "Are you open to a brief telephone call to discuss this?"
5. Leaving jargon unexplained.
Every organization and industry generates company-specific and industry-specific jargon. When used internally, such jargon allows insiders to communicate more quickly and also show that they're "in the club." This increases credibility.
Unfortunately, people can get in the habit of using such jargon without realizing that outsiders (usually customers) have no idea what that jargon. The outsiders rightly conclude that the writer is too stupid to know that and credibility suffers accordingly.
Fix: avoid jargon when writing to outsiders or, failing that, provide a definition.
Wrong: "We use CDA for all written communications."
Right: "When writing, we use software that structures documents into easily-readable outlines. (We call this 'CDA' for 'Compound Document Architecture.')"
6. Being pretentious to seem smart.
People who want to seem intelligent (and thus more credible) often choose a $5.00 word that sounds impressive even when a more commonly-used $.50 word would be clearer more concise.
However, when you use pretentious words, people aren't impressed. Quite the contrary, they're far more likely to chuckle up their sleeves and then laugh behind your back, especially if you use the word incorrectly.
Fix: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Wrong: "The ultimate culmination of our activity was..."
Right: "The last thing we did was..."
7. Peppering the text with buzzwords.
People use buzzwords and corporate cliches because they it makes their writing sound business-like and therefore more credible. Such words and phrases, however, merely show a lack of imagination.
Inside some companies, buzzwords become so common that nobody notices them any longer. Then, when somebody from such a company gives a presentation at an industry conference, the audience rolls their eyes and thinks: "what a bozo!"
Fix: Print out this list of common buzzwords. Post the list by your desk. Before completing any document, do a quick buzzword check and edit them out.
Wrong: "I'm reaching out to see if our best-in-class, third generation product can help you achieve your mission-critical manufacturing goals."
Right: "Based on our current customers' experience, our product reduces manufacturing errors by an average of 30 percent. Is this of interest to you?"