Effective Business Writing for Your Middle Market Company: An Interview with Author and Business Writing Guru Josh Bernoff
Business writer Josh Bernoff is a coach who helps organizations improve their writing. Bernoff’s latest book is called Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. He recently penned a Harvard Business Review article called Bad Writing is Destroying Your Company Productivity, which explained in detail the costs of bad writing for business organizations.
Below is an edited transcript of our discussion. For the entire discussion, listen to the “Expert Perspectives” audio below.
What are the costs and consequences of bad writing for middle market leaders and their organizations?
Bernoff: About six percent of the average employee’s time is spent reading and trying to figure out what the heck the other person is attempting to get across. So if you look at that across all of the jobs in America, it’s a waste of $396 billion for the U.S. economy. Part of the reason is that the people who are the most highly compensated are the ones who read the most. Bad writing spreads inefficiency throughout your organization and that generally results in a lack of productivity.
You might get an email from someone and you get three paragraphs into it and say, “What the heck are they trying to say? Is this important? Am I supposed to do something?” Whether we’re talking about employee manuals that are unreadable, or emails from the boss that don’t get to the point until the ninth paragraph, people are wasting too much time reading bad business writing.
What are some of the common indicators of bad business writing?
Bernoff: I surveyed over 500 people who are either consuming or producing business writing, and the number one problem is length, things are too long. Writers must get to the point quickly. In a world where people are reading everything on a screen, where their attention is easily diverted, you want headlines in the first few sentences to immediately get across what’s important. Another problem is “toxic prose”: excessive use of jargon, passive voice, and weasel words like “deeply” and “very” which reduce the amount of meaning.
What are the factors that drive bad business writing?
Bernoff: First, people are so busy that they don’t take the time to go back and improve what they’ve written. Ironically, that’s what’s wasting their colleagues’ time and making everybody so busy. Second is fear. If writers have bad news, they want to equivocate and make excuses for what happened. That makes it harder for the reader. Last is training. The way students are taught to write is completely wrong for what’s effective in the business world. Having hired many entry- level writers out of college, I had to basically teach them to stop doing what they were trained to do, and learn to write effectively for business.
What is the “iron imperative” and why is it so important for business writing?
Bernoff: The iron imperative is the idea that you must treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own time. If you recognize that a little bit of your time will stop wasting other people’s time, you can be a more effective business writer, and you’ll stand out as such.
Why should business writers “front-load” their communications?
Bernoff: Business writers tend to write deductively. They say, “Well, first this thing and then this thing, and I read this and then this. As a result, here’s the conclusion.” But you must recognize that business writing is showing up in people’s cluttered inboxes or other cluttered environments, so people won’t wait for the important stuff. They’re going to just skip the message. You need to tell them what’s important in the title or the subject line or in the first few sentences.
Let’s say a middle market leader has an important business document to write and it might take an hour or longer. What should this leader be doing to write well?
Bernoff: The concept of flow is important here. This is the state you’re in when you’re very effective at doing what you need to do. To get into a flow state when writing, you need a couple of things. First, prior to doing the writing, you need to gather everything you’ll need. You don’t do your writing and research at the same time. Second, find yourself a spot where you won’t get interrupted. Don’t look at social media. Don’t look at the things on your phone that are buzzing. Just write.
You suggest a pre-writing analysis you call ROAM. Why is ROAM helpful?
Bernoff: In a lot of cases when people sit down to write, they don’t have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to do. If you don’t know your destination, you’re not going to get there. The four steps in ROAM are as follows: R is readers. You want to have clarity about who you’re writing to. I recommend that writers get a photo of who they’re writing to -- maybe the people in your department or a typical customer. Put that in front of your monitor when you’re writing.
And O is the objective. There’s no point in doing any business writing unless you’re changing a person’s mind The objective is the change you’re trying to create in the reader. The A is action. Having created the change, you want readers to act. For example, if you’re doing content marketing, the objective might be to help people and the action is that they end up becoming interested in your company. The M is impression. Obviously, it starts with “I” but I needed to make an acronym. So at the end of reading this, what will they think of me?
Anything else you’d like to tell middle market leaders about business writing?
Bernoff: There’s always a tipping point when you read something from your subordinates, or your marketing people, and you say, “What the heck are these people talking about?” I’d suggest that you translate that frustration into an actual program to improve writing. Organizational culture is a reflection of leadership. If middle market companies have CEOs that don’t communicate clearly, then it’s hard for them to credibly say “clear communication is an important value.” Senior managers, CEOs and other C-level staff ought to get some coaching on writing, so that when they send that email to everyone about next year’s strategic imperatives, they express themselves as clearly as they possibly can.