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.

American workers spend nearly a quarter of their day reading. Much of that is wasted because the material is poorly written. Bernoff has done the math, “American workers spend 22 percent of their work time reading; higher compensated workers read more. According to my analysis, America is spending 6 percent of total wages on time wasted attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material. Every company, every manager, every professional pays this tax, which consumes $396 billion of our national income.”

The websites, marketing materials, and press releases from your suppliers are filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives.

Bernoff illustrates the problem with this mind numbing job description example: “The Area Vice President, Enterprise Customers will develop and manage a sustainable strategic relationship that transforms the current commercial model by creating joint value that results in the ongoing reduction of costs, continuous process improvement, growth and profitability for both partners with the ability to export key learnings.” Such language is poor and embarrassing but it also grates.

Kaleigh Moore wrote an article on business writing in Inc. earlier this year. It examined a related aspect of poor business writing. She makes the case that communication “is an essential skill for any business”. This seems obvious even fundamental but apparently it is not given the sad state of the skill in the business world.

She cites a study from CollegeBoard, a panel established by the National Commission on Writing. It shows that “businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion on remedial writing training annually. Of this budget, $2.9 billion was spent on current employees–not new hires.” This is not attributed entirely to our early years in the education system because “even a college degree doesn’t save businesses from the effects of poor writing skills.”

A report from the Partnership for 21st-Century Skills notes that 26.2 percent of college students had deficient writing skills. These educated folks “also lacked proper communication skills across the board.” This should come as no surprise. Writing makes you a better reader and conversationalist. It can also improve your presentation skills. Writing, reading, conversing and presenting all contribute to knowledge and confidence. That makes for a much resilient, more innovative and efficient workforce.

Carolyn O’Hara is the Managing Editor of The Week and tackled the subject of business writing in Harvard Business Review. Her piece, How to Improve Your Business Writing, is practical. She paraphrases Marvin Swift who said, “clear writing means clear thinking.” Swift wrote a touchstone essay on business writing in a 1973 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Kara Blackburn, a senior lecturer in managerial communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management is quoted in same piece, “You can have all the great ideas in the world and if you can’t communicate, nobody will hear them.” That is so true. I have witnessed too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood. Too frequently, neither has taken place.

Too many of my clients making the mistake of not only assuming they have been heard but that they have also been understood.

O’Hara lays out sound advice:

Think before you write: don’t start writing on the spark of an idea. Talk it through in your own mind before words flow on paper.

Be direct: make your point right up front. It will guide everything after. I think of this as a thesis statement to be proved or disproved.

Cut the fat: avoid the unnecessary and build up the necessary but not with more words. Do it with more emphasis…there is a difference.

Avoid jargon and $10 words: I used to believe I was paid by high-sounding words. I know now it is about being convincing and not trying to impress.

Read what you write: I agree but recommend reading it out loud. I am often embarrassed when I hear the words. Equally so, I am happy when they are edited for greater impact.

Practice every day: We write something every day but I also advocate walking away from that book, article, blog, or report. After all, athletes do not train the same muscles each and every day.

Josh Bernoff has his own advice for better business writing. He suggests “The Iron Imperative” where you “treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own. To embrace it means that every time you send an email or write a document, you must take a moment to structure it for maximum readability and meaning. We are lazy; we’d rather save our own time than someone else’s.” That is very true. It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

It is far too easy to press “send” than to edit again.

He recognizes that smartphone or computer screen reading “reduces attention spans and concentration” so it “demands a radical rethink of the way you communicate in writing. In this environment, brevity must become a core value.”

I am not a proponent of this in a strict sense. Most social media is soundbite-like but exists to compel people to investigate and learn more. That eventually demands long-form business writing. Bernoff’s mantra of ‘clarity, brevity, and plain language’ misses the opportunity to be creative, inject personality and tell a rich story.

Let me summarize what we have covered in hopes of compelling and convincing you of my thesis. First off, poor business writing costs businesses big dollars in inefficiencies and lost sales. Second, everyone needs help to be a better writer.

This means you. You can always improve and if you do you will be contributing to your career, your company’s success, and the entire economy. If that was not enticing enough, you will be incredibly proud when you press send on that next e-mail or text or when your article appears in Fortune or Bloomberg BusinessWeek or when your marketing materials convince a customer to try your offer.

Famous advertising professional, David Ogilvy, had it right, “People who think well, write well… Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.” We are taking writing for granted. It is just something we do, not do well. That has to change.

on-writing-well

100 Staff: An Advertising 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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Ad Agencies Need to Obsess About Loyalty

The company, Access Development, tracked and recorded, and recently shared every publicly available piece of data available concerning customer engagement and loyalty. They call it the Ultimate Collection of Loyalty Statistics. These data points, insights and themes are interesting unto themselves but add up to one big fat fact they did not note…any marketing business is in the business of loyalty.

I mean advertising agencies, marketing consultancies, public relations firms, market research bureaus, digital agencies, performance marketing shops, telemarketers, brand consultancies, social media marketers, media buying services, promotional material providers, influencer and celebrity marketing 200464106-001advisors…well, you get the idea. Any agency, firm or service that is in the business of marketing exists for one purpose. Of course, this includes those prescient to be specifically in the business of loyalty marketing.

The past, present and future of marketing has and will always hinge on loyalty. No company wants a one-time customer. Even businesses selling bomb shelters in the 1950’s wanted a client’s second home or to upgrade the first. Apple wants to sell customers a new cellphone every time there is a new release or every 22 months which is the smartphone adoption average.

Agencies and consultancies continue to talk about brand positioning, awareness, consideration and trial. Important stuff for sure but only the start. All efforts and spend should have loyalty as the end goal. Anything else is a dodge, a feint, a run from the real focus and fight.

Not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer is really talking about loyalty.

I see not one single advertising agency, brand consultancy, PR firm, media buyer talking about loyalty. This leads to churn, inefficiency, ineffectiveness and the regurgitation of the same ideas whose only result is a client’s frustration and dissatisfaction…and poor results.

Why spend money on branding and advertising if not to have repeat customers?

Let me say it again, no company wants a one-time customer. That is why marketing’s purpose is loyalty. You only need to give a cursory examination of Access Development’s aggregation to arrive at the same conclusion. We thank them for the following…and for also proving loyalty programs are a tactic not a strategy.

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The Real Reason Clients Hire You

I have spent my career in professional services. From Price Waterhouse to Interbrand to DDB to now running my own agency. Over that time I have become an expert in branding and marketing professional services. At least that is what peers and clients say. To make that claim myself is analogous to me telling you that “I’m cool” or “I’m funny” or “I’m smart”. The credibility is in others saying it. Having others speak well of you is the goal of branding.

This specialty allows me to work with law firms, management and marketing consultancies, advertising and digital agencies, and accounting firms. An engagement with an investment management firm led to an insight about how and why clients truly decide on one professional over another.

screen-shot-2016-09-20-at-8-58-40-pmFor a long period we assumed that clients first and foremost chose expertise. This assumption led ad agencies to talk about themselves way too much, law firms to numb clients with superior high-minded jargon, and management consultancies to dazzle with mysterious black boxes of proprietary processes. To their credit many professionals identified this as a problem but mistakenly identified the solution. They chose to switch emphasis and focus on the prospective client’s situation.

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Social Media Officially Failed on February 7, 2009

I often joke with clients and audiences at conferences that social media officially failed on February 7, 2009. It is a completely arbitrary date. My point is, around that time it became clear that the promise of social media would go unrealized. That promise being that social media would be premised on conversation.

Instead what happened is brands and their agencies feared lack of control over dialogue. Ceding that control to customers was a scary idea. So they reacted by using social media as just another broadcast tool. They fell back on their comfort zone as in television, print and radio. Years later this persists.

This is not to say brands are shying away from social media. In fact, Forrester predicts $16 billion in spend in social media by US marketers alone in 2016. Lithium, the owner of Klout, that tracks social media influence, commissioned independent research firm ComBlu to take a look at social media. According to their site, “Combining hard numbers with human analysis, the State of Social looks at eight industries and 85 Fortune 1000 companies to determine how strategic and effective brands are across their social ecosystems.”

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Before we get to the insights it is important to state that though I am on Klout, I am not sure of its ultimate value. An aggregate score based on my social media activity has not caused me to alter anything when it comes to social media. And it is clear this report has an agenda and that is to further advance the idea that influencer marketing is valid and works. Social media was always intended to be an egalitarian grassroots tool. Obviously some will attract more followers than others but that should be based on their value and relevance rather than by a campaign using brand dollars.

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Why Marketing and Marketers Love Fads

Mark-Zuckerberg-ice-bucket-challenge

Fads are fascinating. They pop-up, wildly peak, and rapidly become a memory. Fads are defined as, “an intense and widely shared enthusiasm for something, especially one that is short-lived and without basis in the object’s qualities; a craze.” Marketing has historically loved a craze because it enjoys significant awareness.

Social media has helped fuel fads and arguably shorten their shelf life. Fads are similar to habits or customs but less durable. They often result from an activity or behavior being perceived as emotionally popular or exciting within a peer group or being deemed “cool”.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor's prize.

Dance marathoners hoping for a sponsor’s prize.

Nowadays they are promoted across social networks growing trial and converts to the fad. Think about the Ice Bucket Challenge and you will get the drift.

This ties to the bandwagon effect. This is a phenomenon where the rate of uptake of beliefs, ideas, fads and trends increases the more that they have already been adopted by others. Marketers love the notion of fads and bandwagons as they resemble interactive advertising campaigns. Marketers strive to create fresh fads and compel the bandwagon effect or they associate their brand with a fad currently underway to gain a halo effect.

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Ad Agencies Confuse Public Relations with Branding

Perhaps we can lay blame on the Creative Revolution in advertising from the early 1960s. That era of broadcast communications produced, on a relative basis, the largest volume of advertising we have ever seen. It is viewed as the pinnacle of Madison Avenue’s influence. At the same time, the public relations profession was having its own golden days. The masters of spin were as sought after as the martini-soaked mad men (apologies for reinforcing the stereotype).

Soon competition among ad agencies grew in the late 1960s and the phone stopped ringing. Work dried up so agencies turned to their public relations cousins for help. From the mid ‘60s on, this meant pumping out press releases and cultivating media to cover agency activities. Most of this trumpeted new business wins and awards gained at the ever-increasing number of shows. This contributed no real or meaningful differentiation especially given all agencies followed the same playbook. The biggest innovation agencies introduced in subsequent decades was hiring public relations professionals to work in-house.

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A Collection of Business Storytelling Stories

We share a collection of business storytelling articles that offer value. These are both recent and go back a few years but all support the effectiveness of telling the right tale right.

Why Storytelling Will Be the Biggest Business Skill of the Next 5 Years (HubSpot)
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”

The Irresistible Power of Storytelling (Harvard Business Review)
A Strategic Business Tool.

Why Companies Need More Novelists (Fast Company)
Leaders, take note (and MFA grads, take heart): acclaimed novelist Mohsin Hamid on the most quote-Tim-OBrien-storytelling-is-the-essential-human-activity-the-135637important tool you’re not using enough.

Product Narrative: How to Use Fiction to Get Your Story Straight (Inc. Magazine)
David Riemer of the Haas School of Business explains why story telling is so powerful.

The Inside Story (Psychology Today)
Success in the information age demands that we harness the hidden power of stories. Here’s what you need to know to tell a killer tale.

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Marketing is a Human Activity

Marketing-Jeff-Swystun

This originally appeared in WPP’s Sparksheet.

As bots become more and more prevalent, as brands take an aggressive approach to social media, and as everyone drowns in data, it’s worth remembering that successful marketing has always been about one thing only: a personal connection.

Every marketer is bombarded with overwhelming and conflicting information. Most companies (and marketers) can barely digest the data they produce let alone turn it into actionable insights and strategy. Add the utopian promise of Big Data and we have a real issue because the most sophisticated systems will never spit out a marketing roadmap. More importantly, we must never forget that marketing is an intensely human activity.

There are ever-increasing raft of studies, rankings and surveys that pelt the marketing community every day. In branding alone there are now 294 studies tracked on the website, Ranking the Brands. Most of these are celebratory lists pitting brands against each other on one dimension or another. And the tech industry is an expert at producing reports that skew towards ‘technology-as-savior’ conclusions. Add on consumer and market research studies and marketers are now buried in elephant-size data dumps.

I am a part of a team researching marketing studies for a prospective book. Our intent is to discover commonality and difference in content. One thing that we found immediately was the need to clearly understand the wants and needs of consumers. Everything else is blinding white noise. Marketers know this but get distracted by shiny new toys and theories promising better performance.

The practice and profession of marketing has never changed. It has always been predicated on human behavior. It exists to understand consumer’s motives and give them justification for making a purchase. Everything else either supports or erodes this fact.

The relationship between brand and consumer was pretty much a fair relationship until the Mad Men, mass communication era. That marked a point when brands took the appearance of control through the ubiquity of advertising. This went on for a few decades then the balance of power shifted back towards consumers…but was then interrupted by the advent of social media.

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Brand Names are Illiterate

The last season of the comedy, Parks and Recreation, finished up in 2015 but was set in 2017. Much of the plot focused on a fictional business named Gryzzl that is a thinly veiled amalgam of Facebook, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Gryzzl employees tout collapsible transparent tablets that can be used as a skateboard, use treadmill desks, and don’t really appear to work. Their tagline is, “It’s the cloud for the cloud.” and the hI773Ke-company mantra is, “Wouldn’t it be tight if everyone was chill to each other?”

People surf free Gryzzl Wi-Fi, communicate through Gryzzl’s social network, and Gryzzl drones deliver creepily personalized gifts. A youthful executive of the company says, “I hope you can see now there is nothing scary about Gryzzl. We just want to learn everything about everyone and track them everywhere they go and anticipate what they’re about to do.”

Satire aside, the reason I bring this up is because of the name, Gryzzl. It alone made me laugh when I saw it. The name captures the silliness in brand naming these days. Granted, it is extremely difficult to find an original name so for the sake of legal ownership and URLs, many companies are bastardizing spellings and meanings.

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