It is a truth universally acknowledged that corporate writing, from white papers to one-sheets and everything in between, stinks. Say “white paper” to 99 out of 100 executives and first you’ll hear a snicker, and then something along the lines of “I never read that [insert expletive].”
Why is this the case?
After all, most of this writing is done by professionals. Most of these professionals are pretty good. And the people who employ these professional writers are not, for the most part, stupid. From time to time the ideas in these articles are interesting, even novel and useful. So why is the end product so reliably lousy?
There are two major reasons: Fear and the taint of the hidden agenda. Allow me to explain.
1. Fear. Business, in its principles, is pretty simple. It’s the practice of those principles that can get complicated because people are involved. (As Josef Stalin once said, “Where there’s a person, there’s a problem.”) But simplicity scares people. Most folks are afraid that if their ideas are expressed in a simple, lucid manner either they won’t sound as smart as they want to, or their ideas will be exposed as shallow. This is why one finds in corporate writing sentences like this (from a white paper I wrote and for which I will someday be called to account by the Great Editor in the Sky): “The business case . . . focuses on cost savings and cost avoidance, with the potential value add of increased internal customer satisfaction.”
What does all that mean? It means, “We’re planning on saving money, spending less and, if everything works out, making our employees happier.”
But if I had written that sentence, my client would have hated it. It would have made his goals sound too simple. So saving money became “cost savings,” spending less became “cost avoidance,” and making employees happier became “increased internal customer satisfaction.” And throwing in “potential” covered the chance that the employees (those “internal customers”) might end up no more “satisfied” than they were before.
Fear of simplicity leads to jargon. Jargon leads to “value adding” instead of doing something concrete that will make money even though everyone knows that if you “add value” (whatever it may be) without making money, you’re a charity or a non-profit (or soon will be). The business’ fear forces the writer (who in most cases knows better) to lard his writing with jargon and flat-out gibberish that obscures rather than communicates meaning. Which is why nobody reads this [insert expletive].
2. The Hidden Agenda. The primary purpose of corporate writing is proclaimed to be educative and informative, but that’s not quite the case, is it? While there may be information contained in the writing, and it may be educative, the true purpose of the white paper or article or whatever is to market the services of a corporate entity. Now there’s nothing wrong with that except that it’s rarely, if ever, admitted, and that lack of honesty fatally taints the information. Everyone knows this, and that leads to the phenomenon we can call the “No-one-reads-this-[insert expletive]” Syndrome.
So how can these two barriers to improving corporate writing be surmounted?
The fear factor may be the hardest to deal with. Generations of English teachers have connected high-falutin’, Latinate vocabularies to eloquence in the minds of their students and instilled a sense of insecurity when it comes to language that persists no matter how high in an organization a man or woman rises. But think about it this way: If the white papers and articles you’re paying for are dull and hard to understand, you’re not going to get bang for your buck (or, if you must, ROI) because no one will read them. If, on the other hand, your ideas are strong, you’ll sound smart without the fog of jargon. If you need the jargon to sound smart, maybe your ideas aren’t so good in the first place.
To remove the taint of self-interest from corporate writing, the best cleanser is evidence. Instead of simply asserting that your product/service/methodology is the bee’s knees and will make some lucky business bundles of money, supply the data, and provide the examples that will prove it. If you can’t do that, anyone with half a brain will think you’re full of [insert expletive]. If you can’t provide the evidence without breaching confidentiality or exposing some business secret, maybe you should skip the white paper or article. Marketing-wise, it won’t do you a damn bit of good.
You, Mr. or Ms. Executive, spend money on this stuff. You spend time on this stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone actually read it?