The High Cost of Poor Business Writing

Hello dear reader. It is important for you to know that I labored over every word in this post. Oliver Wendell Homes said, “carve every word before your let it fall.” For tone-of-voice I strove for “friendly academic and passionate advocate”. Then I asked, “What do I want the reader to remember?”

I love to connect with people through writing. I do a great deal of business writing and have been encouraged of late. This skill and practice is under scrutiny. Its poor quality leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness. I am encouraged because we are beginning to recognize the magnitude of the problem.

Josh Bernoff recently wrote in The Daily Beast a piece titled, Bad Writing Costs Businesses Billions. Bernoff has been a writer for 30 years and just published, Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. The article grabs with an amazing statistic. It seems that bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year. That is a staggering number.

Bad writing is costing American businesses close to $400 billion every year.

Bernoff writes, “Think about it. You start your day wading through first-draft emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point. You consume reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it. The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.” The last sentence resonated with me. I am on a mission to ruthlessly, creatively and intelligently improve my own writing. This is a demonstration for to do the same.

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Narrative Psychology in Brand Storytelling

Let me tell you a story. It’s a bit about our past. A bit about our future but more importantly, it concerns what is happening right now. It is also a story that nears 2,500 words because our complex world cannot be dumbed downed, reduced to a vague tagline, summed in a 140 character tweet, or captured in an oversimplified to-do list. True learning and understanding requires time and effort so heat the kettle or uncork a bottle and enjoy.

Marketing and advertising agencies claim to be professional storytellers. Methodologies at agencies deliver a brand story as part of engagements. Creative briefs bring the story to life. Agencies pump out papers on the subject and profile case studies where the story is key to client success. Within the industry, marketing conferences make room for storytelling as part of the agenda. Media and publications write on the topic with frequency. Storytelling permeates the profession.

Still, storytelling is constantly critiqued. It is viewed broadly as integral, over-used, irrelevant, or even dead. Storytelling is constantly evolving in interesting ways. Here are three changes taking place in business storytelling:

They Don’t Tell: by its very definition, storytelling is broadcast in nature. We tell a tale. It is ‘one-to-many’ like the Mad Men era of advertising. We know that no longer works. Stories must now invite consumers in and let them be both character and storyteller. It is now about storyparticipation not passive absorption.

They Are Organic: the best brand stories take root organically and get consumers involved. Then they really evolve. This scares traditional marketers. They fear ceding control. Still they control context and that is critical. Context provides the story’s framework. Granted it is a bit of a wild ride when consumers help build the story but this is what is taking place with Uber and Airbnb and has taken place with Apple and Red Bull.

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An Ad Agency Tipping Point

Starting any business is a bold move. Not all survive and few truly thrive. Those that do face the challenges of managing growth and staying true to what made them successful in the first place. This is an interesting tension that I recently discovered in working with four advertising agencies.

These businesses had grown to 100 or more staff. Of course, that metric in, and of itself, is not an indicator of sustained success. The good news is the agency leaders know that. In fact, these leaders were concerned because interesting things happen when the payroll hits 100. Here are some issues that arise:

  • Agencies of 15 or 30 or even 75 employees possess a start-up or boutique feel. When you hit 100 this weirdly begins to dissipate.
  • You don’t know everyone any more. Small agencies talk of being saatchi-saatchi-office-funkt-1“family” where everyone has each other’s back. While a strong culture can keep this rolling as staff size grows, it cannot mitigate the realities of being larger. This is compounded when they open up other offices.
  • A bigger payroll and presence prompts new business pressures. This can mean chasing the wrong work to keep the machine humming.
  • Founders and principals move from client service oversight to functional roles. Marketing, people, service and product development and other areas need full-time leadership. This transition can be bumpy and skill-sets are stretched.
  • Specialisms and differentiators begin to lose their luster. You simply cannot make the same claims. Being “nimble”, as an example, gets called in to question.

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