Compare these two sentences: “The experience will be very painful,” vs “The experience will be excruciating.”

First question: Which gets the point across more effectively?

Second question: Which would you be more likely to read in a typical piece of business correspondence?

In business writing as in any other writing, the writer’s goal is to control the reader’s thinking. As a consequence, “Excruciating,” I’d advise, is far more evocative than “very painful.”

Third question: Did you happen to spot the unfortunate use of passive voice?

“We’ll find the experience excruciating,” improves the message further. Why?

If you think active vs passive voice is a mere academic nicety, take another look. The active voice version … “We’ll find the experience excruciating” … makes the message personal.

“The experience will be excruciating” assigns the agony, not to the reader, but to some unspecified third person the reader doesn’t necessarily care about, and therefore fails to establish the urgency the writer would like her to feel.

In business writing as in any other writing, word choice matters. And no, I’m not suggesting you always choose the most vivid and extreme alternative listed in Word’s list of synonyms. I’m suggesting you always choose the most precise alternative. In the case at hand, your choices range from “unpleasant,” “twinge,” and “discomfort” at the mildest end, “ache,” “pain,” and “hurt” somewhere in the middle, and “agonizing” or “torture,” along with the aforementioned “excruciating” when extreme verbiage is called for.

Think of the English language as a collection of drill bits. Lots and lots of drill bits, in a wide variety of diameters and lengths, and composed of an astonishing variety of alloys.

When the time comes to drill a hole in a cinder block wall, you would, I trust, choose a masonry bit that’s the right diameter for the job, not the first bit that comes to hand.

Make the same effort when choosing words for every email you send, not to mention every report you write and PowerPoint slide you design.

But back to “excruciating” vs “very painful.” I’m going to temporarily remove “excruciating” from the dictionary. You now have only two choices: “We’ll find the experience very painful” and “We’ll find the experience hurts a lot.”

“Very painful” wins — not because it evokes the desired reader reaction better, but because it better evokes the desired reader reaction regarding who you are. “Very painful” is more businesslike than “hurts a lot.”

The Oxford English Dictionary lists 171,476 words in current use. Divide these into three categories: Words you use, words you understand but don’t use yourself, and words you have to look up if you care enough to invest the time.

For example: We all use “bad,” routinely. It’s a category 1 word. Compare it to “wretched,” a word few of us include in our day-to-day conversations with friends and colleagues, even though it’s precise, evocative, and we all know what it means.

It’s in category 2. Sadly, it should probably remain there, at least during office hours — it fails the Is-It-Businesslike test. Use it and it calls attention to itself instead of to the situation you’re describing.

But it’s better than “elegiac” and “odious,” — category 3 words. Use them and you’re just showing off. Just as you’d be showing off if, on the opposite end of the spectrum, you chose “licit,” an entirely legitimate synonym of “legitimate,” but not a licit choice when writing your next business case.

The point, in case all of these synonyms obscure it, is that every time you communicate with anyone, you have two goals. You want them to understand whatever it is you’re communicating about the way you understand the situation. And, you want them to understand who you are and how you think. If you think in terms of personal brands, you want your audience to think of you as you’ve defined yours.

Without a doubt, careful word choice requires more effort than inserting the first words that come to mind. And so, a suggestion, borrowed without permission from Agile philosophers the world over: Start by defining a Minimum Viable Product for your writing improvement.

With that in mind, here’s my suggestion for your writing MVP: Starting with your your next email, choose superior alternatives every time you’re about to type “good” or the grossly overused “great.”

Choosing better alternatives to “good” might not make your writing fantastic.

But it’s a good start.


Where’s the outrage?

Last week’s column, discussing the Not Invented Here By Me Syndrome, included a shot at Apple (“Apple’s aficionados were and are more passionately loyal than Microsoft’s customers. But in IT, Microsoft matters. Apple’s products? They connect to the IT portfolio but aren’t important to it.”

Once upon a time, a statement like that would have yielded a flood of hate mail, or at least, the KJR community being a civil lot, no shortage of kindhearted souls who would take the time to help me see the error of my ways.

Does Apple really have so few defenders? Or, if you’re among them, were you just too busy to express your outrage at my disrespect?

Speaking of outrage, here’s something that causes mine: How few IT managers and professionals (yes, some people are both) read.

The world, or at least the Internet, is chock full of potentially useful information, not that I know how many bytes constitute a chock. Last week, speculating as to why IT organizations don’t take more advantage of it, I enumerated four possible root causes: Incuriosity, fear, internal disqualification, and channel erosion. Due to self-imposed lack of space I didn’t explore possible solutions.

But identifying problems and root causes without suggesting solutions is just pointless griping.

We can’t have that. And so, as a possible solution, how about making reading, or, more broadly, idea discovery part of the job?

But it has to be about more than just discovering interesting concepts, developments, and possibilities. It has to be about more than novelty. It also has to be about utility.

With that in mind, here’s a possible program: Make everyone in IT responsible for reading broadly and deeply about some subject that is, in some way, shape, or form, related to IT’s responsibilities. Their choice. Once a year they’ll be responsible for turning what they’ve discovered into a proposal for how to improve the IT organization.

Some guidelines:

Vision: Recommendations should be visionary enough to be interesting. They should also be practical — concrete enough that you can envision what success would look and feel like. And they should explain how to move from current practice to whatever is being proposed.

Benefits: They should be clear. Don’t limit them to the financial realm, but what IT and the company would get out of the proposed investment shouldn’t be vague and mysterious, either.

Teamwork: Allow teams, but limit their size to three. More than that and when their results turn up you’ll have no way of knowing how many team members actively and usefully contributed.

Source exclusion: You should probably disallow the analyst firms as sources — not because their analyses are illegitimate, but because what they do is what you want your employees to do. Letting a contributor rely on, say, a Gartner study would be akin to a professor accepting a term paper with only Wikipedia in its bibliography.

Divide and conquer: As a practical matter you probably don’t want to wade through everyone’s proposals at once. Stagger delivery so you get a new batch the end of every month. Also, divvy up the contributions so your whole leadership team shares responsibility for evaluating them.

Outcome: Whatever you do, don’t promise to implement, just as you shouldn’t make any other promise you can’t keep.

But on the other hand, do take the contributions seriously. Some will be worthwhile. Incorporate the best into your strategic and tactical planning.

Coach: Many of the suggestions you receive will be interesting enough to get your attention, but not well-thought-out enough to work as is. That suggests the contributor has potential and should be encouraged.

Recursion: Subject this suggestion to the same process it recommends for evaluating other ideas.

Understand I’m making this up. I’m pretty sure it or something like it would work, confident it would lead to significant direct and indirect benefits, and don’t personally know of any IT organizations that has tried it or something like it, let alone demonstrated its merits.

Also understand I’m anything but a disinterested party to all this. As a writer, I of course want more people to build reading habits into their personal development. And so, if the above strikes you as overly ambitious, at a minimum take the time to distribute links to on-line content you find intriguing to the teams you lead

Perhaps append the question, “Should we explore something like this here?”