The lost art of written communication: Part 1

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in PR, Uncategorized

Here are some thoughts I penned some time back about the waning art of written communication (more later)….

Paperback Writer by Marxchivist

Photo: flickr.com
Paperback Writer by Marxchivist

How often have you met someone who seemed intelligent and articulate in conversation, but who in writing couldn’t string a coherent sentence together?

The truth is that we judge people by the quality of their written communication. Email has made it possible to access a vast number of people in no time at all. Bash out a message and you can send it off to thousands of readers. If it is badly written, poorly constructed and littered with grammatical and spelling errors, your credibility is damaged, even if slightly. It shows lack of care or poor schooling.

On the other hand, send out a message that is brief, simple, elegantly crafted and devoid of errors – and you will be taken seriously. Your star will shine.

Those who aspire to senior office in any organisation had better know how to write – and to write well.

So let’s look at some of the most common errors in writing.

  • Know your reader. If you are sending an email to your wife, you write as you would talk to her. You can dispense with formalities. But when you are sending a report to the boss, you had better understand how to address him or her: formality and respect are in order. When you send an email making an announcement to the entire company database, keep it short and respectful.
  • Keep it brief. Busy people have a short attention span and do not want to wade through paragraph after paragraph to get to the point. A useful rule I learned in journalism some time back: you have 20 words in your opening paragraph to describe the entire story. Then you fill in the details below. Five hundred words are usually enough to cover the entire article with all necessary details included.

Let’s look at the following paragraph and see if we can distill it down to 20 words:

The meeting last Tuesday was very interesting because we had all the staff in attendance (for a change) and Mr Sibanda was in a joyful mood (which made us all so relaxed). The meeting was called for 12pm but only really got going at 12:30pm because people kept on coming late, and just as we were about to start, another person would stroll through the door. Mr Sibanda called the meeting to order and announced the agenda for the meeting. He announced that sales had gone up 13% for the previous month (August), setting a record for the year. But he also announced that sales staff would have to keep up the momentum if the company was to achieve its target for the year. But one thing in our favour is that two opposition companies have closed down in recent months due to the recession, so we have a bigger market to attack. (153 words)

So now, let’s cut out all the fluff and get to the point:

Company sales hit a record monthly growth of 13% in August despite the recession, as opposition companies closed. (18 words)

The rest of the paragraph is pretty much “fluff” that can be ignored.

  • Short paragraphs help separate one concept from another. Do not overburden the reader’s eye with long paragraphs. This may work in novels, but not when you are trying to communicate a series of arguments or points. Keep it to one concept (though not necessarily one sentence) per paragraph.
  • Write to communicate, not to impress. You can always tell when a writer is attempting to impress someone, usually his or her professional peers. They infest the prose with jargon and new words recently gleaned from a dictionary.

Here is an example how not to do it:

The minister rose to his feet, waved his hand to the cavernous room, and delivered his speech with a phlegmatic and disinterested air.

The problem with this sentence is it is designed to impress rather than communicate. (Phlegmatic = showing little emotion; cavernous = large, like a cavern).

Here’s a less pompous way to say the same thing:

The minister delivered his speech with a disinterested air.

This is not to say that one should not use rarefied words when appropriate, for example, when communicating to an educated and literate readership, or to add more colour to the sentence.

For example, from Joe Klein of Time Magazine: “Driving 6,782 miles in four weeks, I was forcibly weaned from my usual engorgement of newspapers, magazines, blogs and books. I was cleansed and transformed, a news junkie freed from junk news, and able to experience Americans as they are — rowdy and proud, ignorant and wise.”

The use of the word engorgement here is appropriate to the message and adds colour to the sentence.

From Joseph M. Williams, author of Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace:

“Of course, writing fails for reasons more serious than unclear sentences. We bewilder our readers when we can’t organize complex ideas coherently, and we cannot hope for their assent when we ignore their reasonable questions and objections. But once we’ve formulated our claims, organized their supporting reasons logically, and grounded those reasons on sound evidence, we still have to express it all in clear and coherent language, a difficult task for most writers, and a daunting one for many.

“It is a problem that has afflicted generations of writers who, instead of communicating their ideas in clear and direct language, hide them not only from their readers, but sometimes even from themselves. When we read that kind of writing in government regulations, we call it bureaucratese. . .. Written deliberately or carelessly, it is a language of exclusion that a diverse and democratic society cannot tolerate.”

  • Avoid negative emotions, unless the article specifically demands attack and criticism. When writing emails, never use abrasive or foul language that will rupture a relationship.

Imagine receiving an email from a colleague that says the following: “Your non-attendance at yesterday’s meeting is truly deplorable and it just goes to show that you are not serious about your job or this company.”

Your immediate impulse is to fire back an equally snotty reply that you may regret later. In this situation it is always better to contact the person directly and explain your reasons for non-attendance. How many times have we been let down by someone only to find out later that there were perfectly valid reasons for the behaviour in question? Get the facts first before jumping to conclusions (as did the author of the above email).

However, if you are writing an article about a film that you have just seen and feel criticism is justified, go ahead. Sadly, criticism is the most trafficked currency in the digital age, as any casual browsing of the Internet will demonstrate.

Dare to be different and inject some positive energy into the world with your communication.

More later….

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Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.

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