Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why People Write Too Much

Efficient is doing the job right; effective is doing the right job. Good business writing is both. And yet so much business communication is bloated and dull, uninspired and uninspiring. Why is that? How can it be different?

Readers don't owe us their attention to the things we want them to read. On the contrary, as writers we owe them a great respect for the time they're willing to give us. We also owe them an interesting reading experience and information they can use.

Good and effective writing gets to the point and communicates gracefully. It isn't difficult to do, but it takes real, honest effort. The work begins with understanding the topic and the audience, and with a decision about the objective of the piece. Message, audience, and objective will guide the writing—everybody surely knows that. But often the results are nevertheless verbose and ineffective.

Many times I'm given a client's draft of a communications piece—a video script, web content, white paper, or the like—and asked to rework it. "Massage it," in the client's words. Often the main problem with the original is that it is simply too much: too verbose, too wordy. It rambles.

Here are some reasons that happens, and some suggestions about writing concisely:

Some writers tend to say the same thing more than once, repeat themselves, and reiterate repetitively. ;-) If you are able to say something effectively once, you needn't say it twice.

Forget that old "rule" about telling them what you're going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them. We might think we learned it in school: introduction, body, conclusion. But our teachers didn't mean we had to repeat ourselves. If you have to do that, you're not telling the story very effectively in the first place.

Clients love what they're selling and want to share everything they know about it with their audience. They don't understand that the goal is to transfer their enthusiasm, motivate their audience to want to know more, and enable them to pursue that knowledge. The audience doesn't share your enthusiasm for details, so give them a break. They are impatient, and you're lucky that they give you a moment's attention.

Not ignorance of effective communication techniques, though that's part of it, but ignorance of what's really important and interesting to customers. Often marketers decide what's great about their product, without trying to see it from their customer's perspective. Or they only imagine how customers might think, without doing the research to know for sure. Or they feel the need to communicate in one piece to every possible audience. They develop marketing messages that try to cover all the bases, because they don't know on which bases the runners are. Make your audience's agenda your own. Learn. Target.

Writing is certainly different from speech, but many people write in an unnatural and unnecessarily verbose style. Sometimes that's because writing itself seems too "important" for simple and direct language. Sometimes it's because the writer thinks too much about impressing with his words and not enough about how to plainly communicate his ideas.

In writing that will be voiced—in a speech or video—it is particularly important that the words not sound like writing, but like authentic, natural speech. We often talk in phrases and fragments; it's more efficient and it makes us sound like human beings. Make your movie's characters seem real. You can even make your CEO's speech sound as if she's a human being. Imagine that!

In all writing, don't be self-conscious or fastidious. Don't try to impress; try to inspire.

Mark Twain once apologized, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead." Many people don't know that the most important part of writing—and the hardest—is re-writing. They think that, once written, a piece is done.

I believe writing is an exploration and a process of discovery; one plays with words to get at the truth, then plays with them again to find more succinct and interesting ways to communicate it.

Thomas Mann noted that "Writing is that craft which is most difficult for those who know how to do it well." Good writers recognize good writing—and work very hard to create it. Verbose writers don't make the effort to write concisely.

People often feel they have to get everything into one piece of work, but that is counter-productive. Business communication is a long-term process, not a one-time message. Think about engaging your audience in an on-going series of manageable conversations. Don't look for instant gratification of your appetite for understanding, sympathy and agreement; take it a step at a time. I have told clients, "This will not be the last movie you ever make, unless you try to say too much. Save something for the next one."

Working well with others is a fine thing, but trying to satisfy everybody is a fool's game. Business communication is often bloated because it tries to meet too many disparate agendas. Good writing is focused. A writer may have the benefit of many suggestions and the burden of many demands, but must have the strength to ignore those that don't address the work's primary purpose. Compromise is always part of developing a business communication for a large organization, but don't compromise on the objective—make others understand it.

A sculptor, asked how he worked, replied, "If I'm making a bear I just chip away all the parts of the stone that don't look like a bear." On a collaborative project, you'll receive many non-bear-like ideas but you will have to chip them away, lest you end up making a bear with horns and feathers.

And ...

Oh, my. Have I written too much?

Now it's your turn. What do you think? Please add a comment and let me know.