Friday, September 24, 2010

A Tale of Two Businesses

Once upon a time there were two business owners, Ace and Fizz.

Both made the same type of product, equally well. Both offered excellent customer service.

And both were planning marketing campaigns.

Ace thought, "Everyone loves a good story. I'll build my campaign for Business A around stories."

Fizz thought, "No one wants to waste time on trivial anecdotes. I'll stick to the bare facts in my campaign for Business B."

Ace thought, "People will be interested in hearing how my product helped other customers--people like themselves," and carefully selected the most humorous and interesting customer testimonials. Ace gave these testimonials a prominent page on Business A's Web site and made sure to include one in every press release.

Fizz thought, "I just need to explain to customers how my product will help them," and filled Business B's every Web page and press release with lengthy, tedious details of exactly how the product worked. Most of Fizz's advertisements were hard to tell from service manuals.

Ace threw in a few appropriate stories on Business A's own misadventures in the process of developing the product. After all, customers like to deal with businesses that sound human.

Fizz was careful never to admit that Business B had ever had a setback. After all, a business has to protect its perfect reputation.

Ace encouraged Business A's employees to build still more public rapport by contributing personal stories and new ideas to the PR materials.

Fizz drilled it into Business B's employees to keep their minds on their real work.

The public read Business A's materials all the way through, smiled and chuckled, and began following Business A's doings to hear more. Many new people decided to try the business's product, and soon the number of regular customers was multiplying exponentially.

The public glanced at Business B's advertisements, yawned, and tossed them in the recycling bin or hit the Delete button. No one bothered to investigate the business further.

And Ace sold happily ever after.

(Fizz, at last report, is back on the 8-to-5 grind.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Perfection Isn't Everything

"That is something up with which I will not put." That quip, attributed (in various forms) to Winston Churchill, is the standard response to the claim that one must never end a sentence with a preposition.

The line between grammatical rules and grammatical customs can be thin. Is it ever acceptable to split an infinitive? If not, how would you edit "We are initiating a new training program to better prepare new employees for their duties"? Is "Ain't I a member of this team?" grammatically correct? Yes (if you accept "ain't," the only known contraction for "am not," as a real word), but who'd dare write it? The alternative "Aren't I?" sounds correct, never mind that no one would think of saying "I aren't." Likewise, they as a synonym for he or she has become so common that it no longer seems worth the effort to argue the grammatical incorrectness of using they as though it were singular.

Some people make the effort anyway; the "write like you speak" crowd and the purists (who insist that should be "write as you speak") can start wars over the most trivial matters. When one side is editing the other's writing, coworkers are well advised to stand out of the line of fire.

One might expect a blog called Good Writing Is Good Business to side with the purists. But the truth is, a piece of writing can be technically perfect and still be far from "good" on the average citizen's "worth reading" scale. There's a reason most popular books don't start out as graduate theses. While not generally caring to deal with businesses that sound ignorant, the typical client does want to interact with someone who sounds human--not like a computerized grammar checker or that seventh-grade English teacher nicknamed "the robot" by drowsy students.

If you write a press release that scores high on your word processor's readability scale but makes a newspaper editor yawn and toss it after two sentences, you haven't accomplished a thing.

No, you shouldn't write exactly like (or "as") you speak. Who'd bother following a blog that says "yeah" instead of "yes" and tosses in an "um" or "you see" every few sentences? But you needn't be afraid of using contractions. Or refuse on principle to start a sentence with a conjunction.

Or banish all one-sentence paragraphs.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On Not Stepping on Toes

"Above all give no offense" is a noble goal for business writing--and probably an impossible one, considering how easily some people get offended. There are people who consider "Mrs." the epitome of male chauvinism, and people who claim that using "Ms." is knuckling under to radical feminism. There are people who see the quoting of a Bible verse as the first step toward a fundamentalist totalitarian state; there are people who scream "racism" if none of four experts quoted represent their ethnic group. Any blog or booklet that reaches an audience of any size will be read by someone who goes around looking for excuses to feel insulted.

However, that doesn't excuse deliberate or callous insults on a writer's part. Saying that you believe someone is mistaken is one thing; calling him an idiot or a crook is something else altogether. And there is no excuse whatsoever for writing "retard," "cripple," or any number of ethnic words long used as deliberate insults. (One list of the latter can be found at

For the gray areas between "everyone knows it's an insult" and "you'd have to be pretty unreasonable to make a scene over it," a few principles for coping follow. (And for insight on the issues that fuel inter-cultural clashes, visit the Cultural IQ blog.)

Wherever possible, verify the preferred term for any group referred to--the term currently preferred by the group itself, that is. Relying on what you hear secondhand or on what was standard thirty years ago can get you in trouble; even within groups, "acceptable" words change from decade to decade. The term your father's gardener thought nothing of may be anathema to his granddaughter.

Avoid all idioms that mention groups by name; most such are now considered stereotyping. It's not worth the risk.

Never, under any circumstances, contradict someone who is in a better position to know than you are. A surprising number of bloggers presume to "correct" an Ecuadorian diplomat on what country is southeast of Ecuador (without bothering to check the map, of course) or a seminary professor on what books are or aren't in the Bible.

Avoid contradicting anyone at all unless the wrong information could have significant consequences--and even then, be low-key and respectful. Correcting people just to show off your superior knowledge, or with words that imply "how can you be so stupid?," only says to others that you are too arrogant to work with.

Finally, for those times when someone expresses offense despite your best efforts, seriously consider that you may owe an apology--and be willing to deliver it, publicly if necessary, without argument or excuse. Genuine humility is so rare that it can only help your reputation. Even if your conscience or understanding of the facts won't let you go as far as "you were right, I was wrong," be willing to acknowledge the merits of your opponent's position. In those rare cases where there are none (the fanatic who insists that everyone who refuses to agree the earth will blow up next week is a tool of Satan), better to ignore it altogether than to argue, which only encourages your opponent and makes you look petty.

Perhaps an even better principle than "above all give no offense" is "above all, never imply you're incapable of a mistake." Where the facts support you, let them speak for themselves.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jettison the Jargon

Would you send a sales letter written in Japanese to a prospect who understood only English?

Ludicrous as the idea sounds, many a businessperson does almost the same thing by loading writings for the general public with technical terms incomprehensible outside a specific industry. Today's post title, "Jettison the Jargon," was borrowed from a lay preacher's warning to beware of such phrases as "washed in the blood" when discussing theology with today's average citizen, who wasn't raised on the King James Bible. Every profession from medicine to manufacturing carries similar "jargon" hazards. Ask, "What immediately comes to mind when you hear 'CD'"? and the typical banker's response will be quite different from that of the typical person on the street.

The habit of saying--or writing--what immediately comes to mind is related to many a problem, but perhaps none so insidious as the unconscious assumption that because something is clear to you, it will naturally be clear to everyone else. Most of us know that repeating spoken words louder and louder doesn't really help puzzled listeners comprehend what we're saying; most of us do it anyway, because human "logic" says that we just have to get the words across. The truth is, it's fully possible for a listener of normal intelligence to understand every word or syllable spoken and yet be unable to mentally string them together into a comprehensible whole. Once a brain registers "I'll be going to Seattle" as "I'll be going to see Attel," the translator circuit considers its work done on that sentence--and it becomes all but impossible to clarify what was actually said without rewording or elaborating.

Written communications are more capable of getting exact words across accurately, but carry hazards of their own. Writers rarely see the bewildered or bored expressions that warn speakers to clarify their words. Asking a writer to explain himself is too complicated for most readers to even bother. Thus, the assumption that "of course everyone understands what I'm saying" is free to work its damage unhindered; readers simply throw out or click away from materials they don't understand, leaving writers to wonder why their PR campaigns are getting nowhere.

Industry jargon is particularly dangerous because, often, everyone immediately available to proofread is equally familiar with "insider language." A company editor or even the person at the next desk can check a written piece for general comprehensibility; but when it comes to jargon, fifteen coworkers may agree that the piece is easy to understand and it may still bewilder an outsider. References to non-universal business practices, words for technologies rarely used by the public, acronyms with alternate meanings--all are so easily understood once learned, one quickly forgets that they might as well be written in code if presented for the first time without explanation.

For really important materials--a sales campaign on which your quarterly business plan hangs--you could do far worse than hire an outside writer with experience in multiple industries or in dealing directly with the public. (If your immediate reaction is "But we have a team of staff writers," reread the last paragraph.) For a blog or social media page, try to link every industry reference directly to its definition. (You may want to include a "jargon" glossary in the template; you definitely should clarify the most-used terms in your Frequently Asked Questions section.) And wherever you can, define a term when it is first used. That's particularly easy for acronyms; just write out the whole phrase, followed by the abbreviation (in parentheses), after which you're free to save space by using the acronym throughout the rest of the document.

But unless it in fact has value to concise language (say a concept is essential to the document's purpose and there's no generic synonym for the industry term) or some other tenet of good writing, try to avoid jargon altogether. Like slang and clichés, it's too often the lazy person's substitute for thinking up better ways of saying things.