The simple written word: Why so hard?

The simple written word. Oh why, oh why is it so difficult to communicate it with clarity? More practice. I need more practice. Pablo Cassals, acclaimed by many as the greatest cellist of the 20th century, was asked at age 95 why he still practiced for six hours a day. He replied, “Because I think I’m getting better.”

Malcolm Gladwell, in Outliers: The Story of Success, argues that indeed, practice is key. He identifies the magic number for greatness in his “10,000 hour rule.” Gladwell writes that 10,000 hours is the necessary and required amount of time spent in practice to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert—in anything.

“In Hamburg, we had to play eight hours a day,” said John Lennon. According to Gladwell, “By the time [The Beatles] had their first burst of success in 1964, in fact, they had performed live an estimated 1,200 times in their entire careers.”

Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, senior executives at the global advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, combined to publish Writing That Works. The subtitle of this slender volume is maximally inclusive: “How to write memos, letters, reports, speeches, resumes, plans and other papers that say what you mean—and get things done.” They begin by talking about need, citing a 1979 article from Fortune magazine where executives were asked what academic preparation was necessary for success in the business world. The unanimous reply: Teach them to write better.

“Don’t mumble” is Roman and Raphaelson’s first, and possibly best, piece of advice, “Once you’ve decided what you want to say, come right out and say it.” But, it takes practice.

David Ogilvy, the original Mad Man and the firm’s founder, distributed a 10-point memo to his employees on how to write and be effective. “Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters, and woolly speeches.” In essence, to communicate well, first you must fully understand what you want to communicate. Then, and only then, can you write in simple and direct language—the most powerful way to communicate.

“Come right out and say it.” Sometimes we mumble when we write, sometimes we say too much. We often find ourselves trying to impress our boss, or our readers, with fancy words and phrases, which becomes distracting. In business, pare your statement down to its most basic elements. For example, consider this corporate boilerplate from one company’s press release:

As the trusted standard for all studio box office reporting, [COMPANY NAME] provides intelligence into overnight theatre-level reporting across the global theatrical market.

What is it that they’re actually saying?

[COMPANY NAME] reports and analyzes the overnight box office from movie theaters around the world.

Another example:

Net absorption of office space, which measures changes in occupied space from one period to the next, increased to 11.1 million square feet (msf) in the second quarter of 2012, up from 7.8 msf in the previous quarter.

Not quite as easy to summarize, is it? I’m not using what they probably want to brand as a unique, invented term (i.e., “net absorption of office space”), but, the following is my attempt at an unsolicited revision:

In 2012, occupied office space increased by 7.8 million square feet between the first and second quarters.

Maybe you must use specific wording dictated by company policy, but start with the simple, direct statement, and build from there. With a little discipline and practice, it’s so much simpler than the other way around.

Or, just skip to Olgilvy’s Rule #10. If you want ACTION, go tell the guy what you want.

Posted by Frank J. Mendelson | Best Practices, Business Communications, Marketing, Communications | Comments 0 |
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