ManagementSpeak: Tell me about yourself.
Translation: If I tried to read your resume, I wouldn’t understand it.
KJR Club member Bill Pierson explains both sides of a breakdown in communication.
Business writing isn’t the same as good writing. They overlap, but they aren’t congruent. For example: Were Strunk and White to read that a business function is repetitive, duplicative, and redundant, they would express dismay, and perhaps lose their most recent meal. In a memo, making the point triply like this increases its impact, offending only English Lit majors who never made the adaptations necessary to achieve a corner office.
Continuing from last week’s column, which provided some guidelines for good business writing (which overlaps but isn’t identical with graceful prose):
- Be specific. Compare “This report is awful,” with “This report contains no facts or evidence, is filled with unstated assumptions, argues by assertion, and makes false inferences.” Information is that which reduces uncertainty. Which criticism makes you less uncertain the report was awful?
- Hopefully vs I hope: Use “I hope.” While grammarians lost this battle a long time ago (“hopefully” once meant and should still mean “in a hopeful fashion”), you’ll sound more accurate if you say “I hope” or “we hope.” The effect will be subliminal, but still worth the effort.
- Use “I” sparingly. You aren’t writing about you. So, “I carefully analyzed the data,” might be accurate, but “Careful analysis of the data shows,” is better. Even in your resume, place the focus on your roles and accomplishments. If necessary, use sentence fragments: “Reduced process waste by 15% per year for three years.”
- Contractions: Use them more sparingly than when speaking, but don’t eliminate them. A fully conversational style usually isn’t appropriate — business writing is more formal than, for example, this column. Neither, though, is stiltedness.
- “We,” “you,” and “other people.” For some reason, many in business believe they can only use third-person construction. They’re wrong. “We” and “you” are wonderful pronouns. Use them frequently, but not interchangeably.”We” is better when recommending a difficult choice, “you” when describing positive behavior, and “other people,” “some,” or some other third-party term when describing behavior to revile. To illustrate: “We need to reduce costs.” “I’m sure you have already taken the first steps.” “There are those who haven’t yet accepted the overwhelming evidence.”
- Surrounding words with quotation marks: Do this only when referring to a word as a word — not to create emphasis. The previous bullet provides valid examples. Italics are often better: “In this document, prestidigitation refers to our new application development methodology.””Penn Jillette is masterful at ‘prestidigitation,'” is, in contrast, wrong (in its use of quotations marks — Penn Jillette prestidigitates phenomenally well).
- Don’t get fancy with vocabulary. Earlier in this column I used “chronicled” instead of “was about.” That’s the right choice … for a column, or an essay. In a memo, “chronicled” would sound pretentious.
- Jargon. Use it freely if you’re certain your audience shares it. Otherwise, define your terms.
- Use “assume” carefully. It’s usually an insult, as in, “You’re assuming we’ll make a profit on this.” If the insult isn’t clear, contrast it with the (I hope) more accurate, “It appears you’ve concluded we’ll make a profit on this.” One says you’re too lazy to gather facts and draw logical inferences, the other gives you credit for both.
- Minimize weasel words. Don’t say, “In general, it’s fair to say that the department’s employees are competent, although there are exceptions.” Half of this sentence is disclaimer. “Most of the department’s employees are competent,” weasels enough. You’re writing a report or memo, not a legally binding document that requires escape clauses, loopholes and deniability.
- Gender: Use Ms. as the honorific for women if an honorific is needed. For role names, “man” is wrong and “person” is generally unnecessary, as “sales representative,” “server,” and “fire fighter” demonstrate. There is no graceful solution for a singular gender-neutral pronoun. “He/she” is, by now, widely used and good enough, and “they,” while ungrammatical, is unobtrusive and acceptable.
- Sentence-ending prepositions. If the result isn’t contorted, write around the problem. But as Churchill once said, in defense of terminal prepositions, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Which reminds me of an old joke: A college student from New York City spends a semester at Harvard. Her first day on campus she asks a passerby, “Can you tell me where the library’s at?”
“I can,” he sniffs, “but I must point out that at Harvard one never finishes a sentence with a preposition.”
“Oh,” she says. “I’m sorry. You’re right. Let me rephrase my question. Can you tell me where the library’s at, moron?”