Lecture 3: Causes of Poor Written Business Communications

What Business Leaders Say About Poor Workplace Wrting

Chief executives, contributors to the Harvard Business Review, and specialists have lamented the state of business communications. They do so not because they happen to be bright, cultured people whose literary sensitivities are offended by bad grammar, poor punctuation, and flawed syntax. Much business writing is so unclear, unnecessarily complicated, or muddled that staff must waste work hours deciphering documents, good ideas get lost, and customers and clients cannot understand the intended message. Ambiguous terminology and syntax provide fodder for legal disputes over contracts. That translates into unnecessary costs and missed opportunities. Check this news story for an example of how a single comma wound up costing millions of dollars.

According to Josh Bernoff writing in the Daily Beast in 2017, the struggle to make sense of poorly written material consumes 22 percent of the worktime of American leaders and employees. This amounts to almost 6 percent of total wages, or $400 billion each year, which is more than half the cost of running Medicare.

Various surveys come up with different figures to reflect the impact of inferior writing in the workplace But we hardly need such studies to convince us much business writing is muddled. Opening our e-mail inboxes or post boxes or glancing at brochures slipped under our doors or thrust into our hands, we encounter poor written business communications. User’s manuals, prospectuses, proposals, reports, insurance policies, contracts, and guidance notes on completing income-tax forms tend to be difficult reading. How many of us understand the data-protection laws that purport to guard our privacy? Bad business writing pounces upon us from all directions. It surrounds us, like air pollution.


Influences on business writing

That much business writing falls short should surprise no one. As consumers of business writing, we assume the stilted, jargon-filled, difficult prose we encounter is the nature of the beast, and that for some reason, business writing is supposed to be that way. Anyway, we do not have time to separate the clear and convincing from the muddled and off-putting. We learn by example. When it is our turn to write business documents, we imitate the language we are accustomed to reading, good and bad.

Most U.S. and Canadian universities and colleges require undergraduates to take expository-writing courses, usually in their freshman year, to prepare them for writing at university and in their professions. These courses are invaluable. And yet, as one goes through the next few years of university and perhaps on to graduate school, the lessons of expository writing are easily lost. Professors and lecturers, many of whom may be poor writers, focus their grading on how well the student has mastered the course material. They will appreciate clear writing. It will make their job of grading much easier. But they are unlikely to mark down a brilliant student on the quality of their prose.


Lack of training

University graduates jump into their careers usually without any induction into written business communications. Because few companies train their new employees in business writing, new recruits must rely on two key resources to shape their business writing. The first is what they learned, failed to learn, or have forgotten from university writing classes. These skills are transferable to business communications but must be adapted to fit different aims and audiences. We will discuss differences between academic and business writing later in this section.

The second resource new recruits draw on for business-writing skills is their colleagues. Like wide-eyed baby animals in a David Attenborough documentary on nature, university graduates imitate their elders to learn the lessons of survival in their jobs. However, the alpha leaders often make it to the top not with the help of writing proficiency, but despite their weakness in writing. Thus, poor business writers beget more poor business writing.


Wedded to jargon

Another reason why business writing tends to be difficult to read is that industries and trades use jargon as an abbreviated way of communicating with peers. Many professionals assume that everyone either understands the terminology or should look up the meaning.

Breaking out of the habit of communicating in jargon is difficult for financiers because the language of finance has lost touch with the common language. In a New Yorker article (August 4, 2014), John Lanchester talks about his initiation into the language of money while doing research for a novel. One reason why the language of money is so baffling is a process that he called “reversification” whereby words acquire a meaning opposite of or far removed from their original meaning.

The word “securitisation,” for example, appears to have something to do with security, as in safety. In finance, however, it means turning something into “a security,” i.e., a financial instrument that can be traded, like a stock or bond, though often much more complex. The process of securitisation promotes risk-taking and spreads it away from the original lender to those who have nothing to do with the loan. “You are left wondering whether somebody is trying to con you, or to obfuscate and blather so that you can’t tell what’s being talked about,” Lanchester writes.


Jargon protects flawed thinking

This leads to another reason why the quality of business writing is not better. Jargon, buzzwords, and meaningless corporate-speak are often convenient ways of disguising flawed thinking and mistakes. One only has to recall the 2008 global credit crunch, when the world discovered that bankers themselves had not fully understood the “structured investment vehicles” and other forms of “asset-backed commercial paper” that they sold to investors, and which played a part in causing an international financial crisis.

Getting economists and other specialists to write in plain language is tough. In my own experience working as a writer and editor for non-editorial companies, colleagues insisted on using jargon as if it were a constitutional right, even when the only cost of translating into plain language was a bit of time and effort. Hiring professional writers and editors to solve the communications logjam with “word magic” may achieve nothing more than anointing the same confounding content with correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar.


(For tips, principles techniques, skills, and examples of excellent and poor written business communications, please see my blog.)