February 1, 2011
Can we talk?
No, really. To be an effective communicator these days, we’ve got to loosen up.
There isn’t any other choice. We must become more conversational in our prose, and become “simple and direct,” as Jacques Barzun put it in his 1975 classic “Rhetoric for Writers.”
The very idea of a literary virtue, much less a rhetoric, sounds quaint today. But don’t be misled. Forthright speech (because writing is a form of speech) is imperative today.
People have unprecedented options of things to read. They’re also more pressed for time than ever. Plus, attention spans are getting shorter.
Selecting your words
Anyone hoping to communicate through the written word must respect the reader’s time. That means using shorter words, writing punchier sentences, and avoiding words or phrases you wouldn’t use when speaking with a friend and creating straightforward sentence structures.
In addition, avoid stilted or artificial language — corporate communications clichés, buzzwords and geek speak.
“The bigger the words, the more jargon you use, the less confidence the reader will have in the ideas you are trying to convey,” says Chris Witt of San Diego-based Witt Communications and the author of the book, “Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint: How to Sell Yourself and Your Ideas.”
Even if your readers know what you mean by 24/7, state-of-the-art, win-win or cutting edge, your writing won’t leave an impression.
“You want readers to remember your message,” Witt says. “But if you clog your sentences with clichés, if you put everything in the passive voice, if you remove your own unique voice, people won’t remember a thing you say.”
Trite phrases also cost you any claim to authenticity. “You’ll sound like another corporate tool, hiding behind buzzwords,” Witt says. “You’ll sound less persuasive, not more.”
Achieving your own voice as a writer and establishing a unique style take years of craftsmanship.
If you can begin to write in the way you might in a letter to a friend, instead of in the way you would construct a PowerPoint presentation to be delivered before a ballroom of conference goers, then you’re making progress, Witt says. Plus, your readers will appreciate it. They’re more likely to keep reading, which is what you want them to do.
No-nonsense writing is especially important when writing for the Web. People read as much as 50 percent slower online than they do on a printed page, some studies show.
Printed documents are crisper and clearer than their online counterparts, which require more time to absorb. This also means habits readers develop online are changing how they read printed memos, articles, white papers and books.
Using your best voice
Clear and concise writing has never been more important, says Doug Williams of Houston-based Fuse 5 Communications. Ironically, concise prose can require trying to forget that you’re writing at all.
“Whenever someone self-consciously puts on their ‘writer’s hat,’” Williams says, “the writing will be terrible — long, meandering sentences, corporate speak, stilted language.”
Written prose should sound appropriately conversational, says Williams, a former U.S. Senate press secretary and journalist. “Your goal is to be understood, not to impress the reader,” he says. “That means you’ve got to know your audience and speak to it in its own terms.”
You have to write differently depending on your audience. For instance, Williams explains that you can use technical jargon when writing for a techie audience, because your reader will understand. But if you are writing for the media or the general public, then you have to explain the terminology in simple terms.
Also, different types of writing each have their own conventions. There are various requirements for writing a memo to the boss, an article in an academic journal or a fundraising letter.
However, you must always respect the reader’s time no matter what you are writing. Cut out any extraneous language: Short sentences are better than long ones, and a one-syllable word is better than a two-syllable word.
“Each word needs to justify its existence,” Williams explains.
A final note: On the Web, for reasons already mentioned, the way that you present content can be as important as how it is written. Increasingly, people will skip long uninterrupted lines of text for more visually appealing ones.
“You need shorter sentences, shorter paragraphs, subheads, call-out quotes, lists and bullet points,” Williams notes. “Blocks of gray won’t be read at all.”
So put down the thesaurus and start talking.
For six years, Alan Pell Crawford worked in the PR division of The Martin Agency and for two years, he was also editorial director of The Bergman Group, both in Richmond, Va. He is the author of three books, most recently “Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson” (Random House, 2008)
Email: Acrawford at aimmedia.com