Good writing is important in business as everyone knows. And it’s especially important for professional services firms publishing articles, research studies and white papers. These things show off a firm’s expertise and so are actual samples of the firm’s product. A sales brochure for a printer, for instance, is not.
And yet a lot of professional firms’ materials are not well written.
I think there are at least two key reasons.
The first was brought home to me last week reading an excellent book about exercise called “Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights?” by Alex Hutchinson. He tells how a 1987 study found that instructing cyclists to pedal with vague descriptions like “somewhat hard” or “hard” was just as good as monitoring heart rate at producing a repeatable effort. He goes on to explain that only about 10 percent of people struggle with perceived effort, according to University of Wisconsin-La Crosse researcher Carl Foster—mostly control-oriented people (often lawyers or surgeons) who don’t like to admit anything is difficult. “They’re on a treadmill saying, ‘This is easy, this is pretty easy, this is sort of moderate’—and then they’re going backward off the treadmill.” I suspect that other highly qualified professionals such as consulting partners, for instance, might sometimes share similar tendencies with regard to writing.
The second reason I suspect is that a firm’s professionals think they already learned to write in school and college. And they did; but for teachers and professionals, not customers. That’s a very different matter for a host of reasons. Here is a brief summary of three of the most important ones.
Simplicity versus complexity: For readability, the optimum sentence length is somewhere in the range 15 to 25 words. But if you go to most professional firms’ sites, you’ll more likely find an average length of at least 30 words, with 50 to 75 word sentences not uncommon. Sentences this long are almost impossible to read. If you doubt it, compare these two versions of the same one;
“The paradigmatic change from the fully controllable, powerful point sources in the classical power grid to the distributed area sources of alternative energy sources – such as wind and solar – calls for new qualities in the system-wide aggregation and processing of basic data.”
Adding new sources of energy such as wind and solar to existing power grids will require better data processing to manage them.
Sentences like the first are rarely discouraged in school—and often rewarded.
Passive versus active: In many subjects (such as science class) we were taught write “objectively” in the passive tense. For example:
To expose the frog's femur and tibiofibula, the biceps femorus and the gastrocnemius muscles were removed, instead of
To expose the frog’s leg bones, we cut off the thigh and calf muscles.
Passive and technical writing impresses science teachers, but bores potential customers.
Structure: School taught us to structure essays with an introduction, a body and a conclusion. This is a form that takes forever to get to the point. It doesn’t matter in school because the teacher will read it anyway in order to give it a grade. But that’s not the case in business. No busy executive will read page after page to find out what your point is. He wants to know up front what it’s about and what he might get from reading it.
If your job is to help your firm’s professionals write better copy and they don’t always appreciate your help, be comforted that you are not the only one. And if you’re a professional wanting to write to impress your customers, take comfort in the fact you may be able to improve on past performance. And in this day of infinite online resources, you can find excellent guides and tips in seconds.