In his novel Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac says this:  "One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple."

Good writing is a basic corporate efficiency.  There is an art to business writing and the key to this good writing is simplicity.

Josh Bernoff brought out a book last year titled Writing Without Bullshit:  Boost Your Career By Saying What You Mean.  For the book he surveyed 547 business persons over three months.  He looked at people who read about 25 hours per week, of which about a third was email.  81% agreed that poorly written communication wasted huge amounts of time.  This poor writing was "too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise."

While non-executive employees may get little training in clear, incisive writing, it is more concerning that top executives increasingly reveal little skill in expressing themselves with nuance and accuracy .  For example, Bernoff cites this passage from an email by former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in 2016, when Yahoo was sold to Verizon:  "...Our incredibly loyal and dedicated employee base has stepped up to every challenge along the way....The teams here have not only built incredible products and technologies, but have built Yahoo into one of the most iconic, and universally well-liked companies in the world....I'm incredibly proud of everything that we've achieved, and I'm incredibly proud of our team.  I love Yahoo, and I believe in all of you."  Note the repeated use of the word "incredible" which amounts to meaningless cheerleading--flabby, vacuous and excessive.

A lot of MBAs lag behind in writing.  In many business programs, it is possible to take entire classes without submitting one piece of writing.  Though much of communication in business may happen numerically, using words effectively may make the difference between success and failure.   As technology progresses, investors and associates require more frequent updates in language that they can understand.

The Wall Street Journal did an article on this a couple of years ago titled "Students Struggle For Words."  It documents the growing unhappiness of employers of the inadequate writing skills of newly minted MBAs, citing wide-spread complaints about business school graduates rambling, using pretentiously technical language or careless, imprecise emails. Sharon Washington, Executive Director of the National Writing Project at Berkeley, argues that new STEM emphasis and constant digital communication have significantly eroded students writing skills.

I believe some of Donald Trump's difficulties in his first year as President have to do with his limited vocabulary, what Peggy Newman in the WSJ calls his "thick chords of rhetorical inadequacy."  Certainly clear business leadership, expressed in words and writing, creates alignment, clarity of culture, and efficiency.

So beware inarticulate corporate managers and workers.  Their imprecise communication saps productivity.  They vitiate clear messaging.  They undermine branding and culture.  They make you and your company sound vague and lacking in gravitas.  Vague writing begets vague thinking.

Furthermore, a culture of good business writing simply saves time.  It makes management more efficient.  Says Josh Bernkoff, "[A culture of good writing] means that the material that ends up on your desk will be clear.  Senior managers can waste time rooting through their subordinates' fuzzy writing, or they can spend effort changing the culture to one that prizes brevity, clarity, and directness.  That's worth the effort, because it means everyone in the organization--especially management--will end up more productive."

But perhaps most important of all is not to write anything unless there is something of worth, originality, or necessity to communicate.  As Sholem Asch puts it, "Writing comes more easily if you have something to say."  Thanks, Sholem.

Published on: Mar 5, 2018