Lecture 7: Business vs Academic Writing, Words Big and Small

Business and academic writing are not the same

While similar principles and techniques underlie all good writing, genres of writing differ in purpose, context, and audience. In this course, the important distinction to make is between academic and business writing.

Student examinations and papers aim to demonstrate mastery of a subject. University-degree theses and published academic writing go a step further: they debate, discuss, and add to humankind’s understanding of our world and universe. Academics speak and write in a dense language full of conceptual vocabulary, terms which may mean different things in different disciplines. The vocabulary, style, formats, and norms of academic writing promote efficient communication of complex ideas among peers with the same academic knowledge.

Business writing, in contrast, aims at transactions, at selling products, services, or ideas, and supporting whatever it is we sell with manuals and correspondence to ensure our clients and customers derive maximum benefit from their purchases. A company may employ researchers, scientists, and engineers to design products. Their work may break new ground, as is happening now in many aspects of information technology. But their goals are ultimately transactional.

The external communications of NGOs, governments and their agencies, and institutions are also transactional in purpose whenever money is involved directly or indirectly. Regulatory agencies, for instance, oversee trade, commerce, and finance. Charities raise funds for their causes. Governments impose and collect taxes. Personal business communications, at least in my own case, tend to involve money in one form or another.

Offshoots of academic and business writing

Academic work can reach beyond circles of peers. Some academics are also excellent writers with a knack for explaining complicated ideas to the masses, meaning you and me. A few scientists, sociologists, and legal experts become best-selling authors. Such writing draws on academic knowledge. Because making money from writing books is unpredictable, only the most confident of writers can count on their publications selling more than a few thousand copies. Such writing is neither strictly academic nor business. Classifying it is beyond the scope of this course. However, successful non-fiction publications based on academic knowledge are worth considering as models of how to communicate complex ideas in clear, plain language.

Business also produces new ways of understanding the world. “Thought-leadership” studies, for example, aim to break new ground in organising business. At least, that is the theory, though in practice, one might argue, thought leadership has become primarily a promotional tool. Either way, the main aim of thought-leadership content is to advertise unique expertise, strategies, or techniques purporting to provide advantages to those who employ the services of the “thought leader.” In other words, those studies are ultimately transactional in purpose. Journals such as the quarterly reports produced by the consultancy McKinsey & Company serve similar ends.

I realise this may be simplifying things. Indeed, you could probably pick apart each paragraph so far in this lecture and debate every thought. But the distinction between academic and business writing I have made should serve the aims of this course, that is, to learn what it takes to create clear, concise, engaging, and convincing business writing.

The myth that big words and jargon impress                                     

Many businesspeople feel they must use buzzwords, jargon, and specialist terminology to demonstrate their expertise. Using heavy-duty vocabulary may convince an audience you are steeped in the knowledge of your field and have much experience. At the very least, they will assume you can talk the talk.

On the other hand, they may think you are trying to show off, or bluffing. Some readers may conclude you do not understand what you are talking about well enough to explain it in plain language. Many readers do not have the patience to stick around to work out which it is. However smart you are, losing your audience and the opportunity to make a transaction is not a smart move.

I have heard economists and others argue that their clients expect and like big words, technical terminology, and jargon. If so, fine. But studies show that chief executives and others in senior positions prefer plain language. Have you ever heard anyone complain about a shortage of jargon and specialist terminology in a document? Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is among chief executives who have criticised the use of jargon in their own companies. (I quote him in a later lecture.) Clear writing demonstrates clear thinking. Catch phrases, besides being tedious, can mask muddled thinking.

Sometimes we do have to use conceptual language and terminology. In such cases, we should explain the terminology in plain language.

Misconceptions about the jobs of the writer and the audience

Businesspeople, I have found, often believe the job of the audience is to understand them. If the audience does not understand, the thinking goes, those people have not read carefully, have misinterpreted, need to learn the vocabulary, or are “not my audience.”

However, marketing is the job of the seller, not of the potential buyer. Nor should a client need to work out the significance of a poorly written financial analysis produced by an investment-bank economist. Unless you have a monopoly over a necessity, why should the audience take on the job of figuring out what your product is?

If you are the buyer, the same is true, only in reverse. A company seeking a management consultancy for advice, for example, needs to articulate its needs and aims clearly. Throw in the abstract concepts of management language, often used carelessly, and the risks of misunderstanding are high.

Both buyer and seller must be clear about contractual terms. The complicated legal terminology of lawyers adds another layer of confusion and risk to business. Some law firms have figured out that using plain language can give them an advantage over rivals. Often—and many legal experts have argued the point—“legalese,” the formal and technical language of law, can bury a venture under piles of unnecessarily complicated verbiage.

Giving up a chance to use jargon or specialist terminology is difficult because we have invested so much of ourselves in learning that language. Psychologically, many of us are deeply attached to the fancy words of our trade or education. All the “blue-sky thinking” aimed at figuring out to how best to “leverage” your organisation’s “unique selling points” is pointless if your potential client or consumer cannot understand your message.

False promises of “word magic”

As a freelance editor, I have worked for non-media organisations that want to improve the quality of their reports aimed at existing and potential clients or customers, or stakeholders, that is, parties with a direct or indirect interest in the activities of an organisation. “I will send my draft to you this afternoon and  you can work your word magic and make it sound wonderful,” is the sort of thing I have heard many times. I cringe when I hear such words.

I have faced documents of up to 50 pages of incomprehensible writing. Some have read like poorly written catalogues, with lots of information strung together and leading in many directions but nowhere specific.

Not even the best wordsmith in the world can wave a wand of word magic and turn incoherent thoughts and information into a useful narrative. Word magic does not exist except in the minds of those who do not bother to learn how to use words effectively. You need research, information, and a clear idea of what you want to say. There is no substitute.

Knowing that word magic is a myth should encourage students taking this course. It means you do not have to acquire magical powers to write. All you need to do is learn techniques.

The misconception of clients and customers wanting “all the information”

This is a misconception common to many economists and financial analysts whose clients depend on them to stay abreast of the health of the economy. After each release of a weekly, monthly, or quarterly indicator of employment, industrial output, etc., economists issue 500 to 800 words of text explaining what the figures show.

However, clients are busy people who need information not for its own sake. Rather, they require information that matters, to understand what they need to do to protect or advance their interests. Writing a lengthy report when nothing much has changed is not a service, but a disservice, because it forces clients to spend time reading with little reward. A paragraph consisting of a few sentences might suffice, especially when the data has little impact. Clients are paying for insight, not buying words by the dozens or the box.

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