True story: I was once written up for using college level vocabulary on the job. Yes, it was in a written performance evaluation. No, I was not writing for a living at the time; was running a line of business and creating more job adverts. You might not guess that my employer was a bank, where most workers had some college and many had MBAs. Go figure. Just one of the reasons I’m forever freelance.
There’s a place for arabesques in writing — that place is usually literature or narrative nonfiction. When I write for business I’ve learned to use them sparingly (or link to the definition!).
Business writers need to err on the side of spartan communications. Well-written, engaging and action-oriented, while spartan.
Trim the fat
Teaching by example, I edited the opening sentences of this WordPress blog post to rid it of verbal flourishes and the loathsome passive voice. I kept “nascent” for the paragraph’s arabesque.
It is with extremely great pleasure that I point you to the first post at the new I’m pleased to introduce you to the WordPress Foundation site. Not only am I excited about the things that will happen under the auspices of the Foundation, I’m proud of what the Foundation will do, and excited to see a site running the 3.0 development version and the nascent theme called 2010.[tip]
Lesson for business communications: adverbs, adjectives and complex sentences are risky. They bore readers, who then lose track of your core message. Use them as sparingly as salt in your diet.[/tip]
In the edited post above, “extremely great pleasure” and “under the auspices of” belong in a royal decree, not a business message.
Since business communications are usually intended to sell something — an idea, product, feeling or investment — stick with the big picture or high concept.
I’ll make my point visually, with Oriental rugs (below). The closeup on the left shows intricate detail, but you can’t see the whole rug, whereas the photo on the right gives you the big picture at the cost of the individual motifs.
There’s an ideal use for each photo. If you were a rug merchant who had to choose between the two, you’d use the larger one to entice your prospective client into the store to examine the design and craftsmanship. Same with business communications, which are ultimately designed to sell anything from a product to a feeling to an investment. The goal of written communications is usually to get people to make the next step, which might be making the purchase or calling for more information.
Financial communications often require the equivalent of both photos (detail and big picture). If you’re writing something with boilerplate requirements, write less and use visuals like sidebars, graphics and headers to keep the reader’s attention on your pitch and off the fine print.[tip]
Lesson for business communicators: entice the reader to get the full story/complete picture from someone who can close the sale.
- Don’t try to answer every question or explain every variation in writing
- Don’t try to explain the boilerplate
When you look at the closeup of the rug to the left, you know you’re not looking at the entire rug because there are enough visual cues that it’s a part of the whole (no border, no symmetry of design, etc).
The photo to the right might be the rug’s border or the entire rug, but if I had to guess, I’d say it was a closeup of the border because if it were the entire rug the right and left ends wouldn’t be chopped off.
This photo clearly shows the entire rug, but you have no way to know if it’ll fit in your dining room. If it had been photographed with a dog, human or piece of furniture — better yet, a dining room table and chairs — you’d have a clue.
Lesson for business communicators: keep the reader engaged using proportion and visual cues.
- Size paragraphs according to the length of your message. A 15-sentence paragraph works in a Russian novel, but not in a two-page newsletter article.
- Headers at regular intervals help cue the reader that they’re making progress and enable skim reading. Get over it — people skim.
Whole-brain communications note: this post taught about writing but did so in a visual manner.
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