Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Better business writing pt2


Narrative versus fact

We use words to tell stories. Words are a very poor medium for presenting facts, especially numbers. Our writing should present analysis, with facts presented as tables. The following (slightly edited) abstract of an academic study explains the distinction:

Data is raw. [Items of data] are symbols or isolated and non-interpreted facts. Data represents a fact or statement of event without any relation to other data. Data simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence.

Information is data that has been given meaning through interpretation by way of relational connection and pragmatic context.

Knowledge is information that has been cognitively processed and integrated into an existing human knowledge structure. Knowledge is dynamic. … The most important difference between information and knowledge is that information is outside the brain (sometimes called knowledge in the world) and knowledge is inside.

Knowledge and Information Visualization, edited by Sigmar-Olaf Tergan, Tanja Keller

We do not sell data. But by writing reports that simply present facts, we are doing precisely that, and no more. Worse, we are doing it in the most awkward and difficult way possible. Our job is to turn our data into our customers’ knowledge.

Sunday, August 14, 2022

Better business writing pt1

 “If you can’t explain it to a six-year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Albert Einstein (attr)*

Back in about 2013 I wrote a screed called ‘How to write better’ for the company whose publications I had been hired to improve. I’ve redacted identifying elements, but otherwise it stands up. Here’s the first part.

When you finish writing, it’s tempting to think that the job is done. In fact, the job is only half done. Your writing achieves nothing until it has been read and understood by a reader. To improve our communication with our readers, we need to write more clearly and more briefly. How can we achieve this?

* Einstein probably didn’t say this, or, if he did, he cited a cocktail waitress as his audience of limited understanding. Modern commentators prefer to mitigate his sexism so as not to detract from the valid point he was making. Fair enough.

The problem

We tend to go through a two-stage process when writing reports:

  1. Decide what we want to report
  2. Phrase it in a manner becoming of a business report

Our writing will be improved immeasurably by simply eliminating Step 2. Business writing is a standing joke among writers and editors. Why would you want to emulate it?

Business writing often consists of long, verbose sentences and paragraphs, full of pompous language, equivocations, clichés and jargon. These often disguise vagueness of thought or sometimes the absence of any original thought at all.

Our overriding principle in all writing must be to communicate our knowledge and insights. This means writing briefly, simply and clearly.

  • Say things simply, directly – and briefly
  • Stick to the point and avoid unimportant detail
  • Put phrases in their natural order
  • Keep sentences short
  • Keep words short
  • Avoid abbreviations in text
  • Avoid numbers in text
  • And especially avoid those four enemies mentioned above: pompous language, equivocations, clichés and jargon

Complex language causes the reader cognitive strain, which is a major barrier to understanding and acceptance of our analysis, as the following excerpt from an article on the psychology of reading explains:

When people have to exert more energy in order to find a piece of information or manipulate a feature, they can become more vigilant and suspicious. … They may want to examine other options. … They may start to question the credibility of your content [and] the reputation of your company.
Jen Cardello, Nielsen Norman Group

Cardello’s assessment is distilled from Daniel Kahnemann’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, in which the Nobel-Prize-winning psychologist explains that people – all people – will avoid cognitive strain whenever possible. We are deluding ourselves if we believe that our readers will accept cognitive strain because what we are saying is important to them. If our writing gives them cognitive strain, they will avoid it either by losing concentration or stopping reading altogether. This might explain why buyers of our reports ring us up asking for information that is already in the report they have just bought and supposedly read.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

I've stopped wearing poppies. Here's why

Here in the UK, we fetishise the suffering of the English upper classes on the Western Front, as if that was all WWI was about. Yes, Waterloo was (apparently) won on the playing fields of Eton, but the Somme wasn't. Yes, lots of toffs died after writing their war poems, but thousands of miners, farmers and factory workers also died without a line to their names. 

But it was a World War. WORLD war. How much do our kids know about the Serbian campaigns, the war in East Africa, the Middle East or Papua New Guinea? As Michael Gove (not a man I agree with very often) pointed out, it's about more than war poets and Blackadder IV. Do people even know about the Eastern Front or the war at sea? How many of our schoolchildren could even point to the Battle of Jutland on a map?

National sensitivity is no longer required as all the veterans are dead. So can we at last recognise that WWI was a tragedy not just for us but for the Commonwealth, the French (our allies; does anybody remember them?), as well as the Serbs, the Italians and the Russians? Hell, it was a tragedy too for the Germans, Austrians and Turks, who unlike in WWII weren't fighting for anything much less moral than us. Sure, we can even joke about the Americans being late but try looking at their graves and sneering.

Surely we must recall that WWI was a global tragedy and all the victims suffered as much, whatever side they were on. Are Wilfred Owen's poems worth more than the drawings of Otto Dix?

Friday, December 7, 2018

Fair, with a bit of play

“It’s a shipping magazine. We should
put ships on the cover.” Nah
I wrote this piece to mark the closure of Fairplay magazine in November 2018 after 135 years of publication. I joined Fairplay in 1995 and soon became its first ever sub-editor, which meant I controlled everything that got published – a privilege I abused massively.

When I was asked to write something for its final issue, I foolishly didn't check the word count I had been given, so I had to abandon the piece reproduced here and ended up writing something entirely different. Still, unlike what appeared in the final issue, this conveys some of the fun we had producing the magazine in the 1990s and 2000s. I could be wrong, but the loss of that sense of fun might have contributed to its demise.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Shall I compare thee…?

Business writers love the word ‘compared’. It’s an easy way of suggesting a relationship between two things without explaining – or sometimes thinking – what that relationship actually is.

Ask yourself what this writer is trying to say:

“Demand in Europe appears to be flat compared with last year”

Friday, December 2, 2016

The rise and fall of high and low

Business writers like to use the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ indiscriminately. Numbers can be high or low, but physical things such as ships can’t (except in the Panama Canal locks). Similarly, they use the verbs ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ – the process of becoming high or low – too much. If you use such words for things other than numbers, you give the impression that you aren’t thinking about the real world.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How harassed are you?

Another survey hits the press, this time from the Trades Union Congress and Everyday Sexism, telling us how badly women are treated at work. 

Scepticism is the obvious response, because the TUC is in the business of protecting workers and is never going to put its name to a survey saying they don't need it. Everyday Sexism isn't in the business of denying there's a problem either, and has form when it comes to presenting anecdote as data. But we could make similar arguments about most surveys that appear in the press. 

We all know sexism used to be a big problem in the workplace, and most of us suspect that it hasn't been eradicated. After reading this survey, our understanding hasn't moved on an inch.