Good Corporate Writing: Why It Matters, and What to Do; Poor Corporate Writing-In Press Releases, Ads, Brochures, Web Sites and More-Is Costing Companies Credibility and Revenues. Here's How to Put the Focus Back on Clear Communication
Canavor, Natalie, Meirowitz, Claire, Communication World
Can good writing be tied to the corporate bottom line?
We conducted a totally unscientific survey, tapping IABC colleagues, WorldWIT (Women in Technology) and other networks for insights into the state of corporate writing and its impact on organizational health.
We got an earful of anecdotal evidence that revealed that 1) quality writing on the corporate scene is in bad shape; 2) it matters--a lot; and 3) there are ways to counteract the downward slide, but the reasons for it are profound, and the fix won't be a quick one.
We acknowledge at the outset that we began our survey without any claim to objectivity. As professionals whose entire careers have been invested in the crafts of business writing and editing, our feelings about what we see in all media--from newspapers to organizational newsletters to government forms to web sites--hover too often between dismay and horror.
We can't help wondering what readers think when they read, "The network must seamlessly accommodate these immerging usage patterns," or, in a food catalog, "Your taste buds will experience an exciting bust of flavor."
Typos are inevitable, you may say, and people forgive such carelessness. But consider a few recent examples of convoluted writing from our cringe collection.
From a global company's advertorial: "Given the limitations on current storage management technology imposed by heterogeneous storage infrastructure, achieving nominal capacity allocation and utilization efficiency is nothing short of a black art."
Or this, from a web site that, as far as we can figure out, promotes services that test the user-friendliness of web sites: "Design happens at the intersection of the user, the interface, and their context. It's essential for interface designers to understand the gamut of contexts that can occur, thereby ensuring they create designs that are usable no matter what's happening around the user."
So here's the question: What does writing like this cost companies in terms of credibility, image and sales? What's the result when audiences cannot understand what we're saying, or simply don't read it? How do we measure the dollar loss of failing to explain our products, messages and values?
The ponderous and the pretentious
"You've just got to wonder if so much corporate writing is really written to be understood," comments Don Ranly, who has been teaching journalism at the University of Missouri for 31 years and who has led close to 1,000 writing seminars in corporate settings. "You've got to know so much of it is ponderous and pretentious and trying so hard to be obtuse that it's just the opposite of simple, clear, concise language that says what it's trying to say."
Obtuse writing is more inappropriate than ever in the wake of globalization. Whatever the language, there's a critical need for clear, jargon-free writing that can be readily understood by non-native readers, and that can easily be translated.
During the course of our research, we learned of two defense contractors whose communications produced very different results. One, which will not be named, was competing for major contracts against several other companies and, having brilliant engineers, was confident of winning them. But that didn't happen. Why? Poor proposals. "They had no clear direction, they were too complex, they were not well organized, [and] the sections didn't connect or flow," explains Mel Haber, whose company, Writing Development Associates, of Little Neck, New York, USA, has been working with private industry and government for 25 years. The contractor brought Haber in to help the team write clearer--and, ideally, winning--proposals.
However, the other contractor, GSE Dynamics, based in Hauppauge, New York, has recognized the benefits of good writing. "We work directly with the government and have to look and be professional in everything we present," says Vice President Anne D. …