Lately, I’ve been hosting business English courses for corporate communicators at a large organization. By far the most frequent question I am asked is this: “How do I stop my manager/client/stakeholder from turning my writing into gobbledygook?”
Having worked as an editor in the communications department of a large investment bank, I empathize completely. There’s nothing worse than some verbose exec “improving” your finely crafted copy by inserting references to “delivering key learnings,” “driving employee integration strategies,” and “interfacing holistically with clients.”
There are two aspects to successfully managing your clients: getting the process right and knowing how to navigate the politics. Here, I offer my tips on the first of the two P’s—process.
1. Don’t ask for “feedback.”
“Feedback” is a broad concept meaning different things to different people. One editor might check for grammar and spelling. Another might be concerned with how “on-brand” the story is. Yet another will want to rephrase your writing to incorporate words like “solutions,” “impacted on,” and “going forward,” simply because your original wasn’t “corporate enough.”
So instead of asking for feedback, ask whether there’s anything in the piece that would cause a problem if it were published. That limits your exec to pointing out inaccuracies (misspelled names, incorrect job titles, out-of-date information, etc.) and alerting you to anything that’s sensitive, confidential, or embargoed.
2. Pick up the phone.
There’s nothing more soul destroying than receiving an email returning your copy in unrecognizable form (especially if the subject of said email is “Further amendmants”—true story).
Next time, get your exec to call you with comments. That way, the editing process becomes a discussion between two equals, rather than an ego-crushing drama in which your role is to accept their permission to publish.
3. Avoid tracked changes.
It’s particularly humiliating when your exec’s contempt for your copy is broadcast in red underline and numerous boxes marked “Deleted.” If you can, PDF your document before you send it so they’re forced to talk to you about any changes.
4. Be ruthless with word count.
In my experience, most examples of corporate writing are far, far too long. So lay down some rules for word count—and stick to them. For example, insist that all stories on the intranet must be no longer than 200 words. (“Not my fault, gov; it’s the technology, innit?”)
“Delivering holistic operational synergies across the organization” uses up a lot more words than “working together.” So if that’s really how they want to put it, then the essential paragraph on “leveraging engagement to drive cost-efficiencies” will have to go, won’t it?
Which is it to be? Or shall we just say both of them my way?
5. Don’t budge on sentence length.
Similarly, insist that any sentence longer than 24 words must be cut—and, again, don’t budge. Put these rules in your company style guide, so you can wave them at your verbose exec. Don’t have a style guide? Create one.
6. Throw some stats at them.
Another weapon to throw at your verbose exec is the readability tool in Word. I recently heard of one communicator who gave scientific proof that his original was better than the version that had been edited by the company CEO—simply by pointing out differences in the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease figure. The CEO, being a numbers type of guy as most are, backed down immediately.
7. Have a list of banned words and phrases.
One of my greatest achievements is that I worked in the marketing department of an investment bank for two years and never once used the word “leverage,” except in its technical, financial sense.
There’s a real discipline derived from having a list of banned words on your desk: It stops you being lulled, by repeated exposure, into thinking “delivery framework,” “best-practice solutions,” and “going forward” are acceptable uses of the English language.
8. Do an audit.
This was an idea that a participant in one of my writing courses came up with, and I love it. Like me, he found it alarming that one of his colleagues regularly dealt with documents labeled intranet_story_v17.doc and the like.
His suggestion was to put version one next to version 17 and judge whether the latter really was 17 times (and who knows how many hours) better than the first. Ask colleagues—including your verbose exec—what they think.
Calling the review an “audit” is particularly powerful if you’re dealing with business types, implying as it does that it will provide hard numbers to save the company both money and time.
9. Standardize the brief.
Every memo, intranet update, or article in the staff magazine should be published for a reason—and not just as a way of bigging up someone senior for fulfilling their objectives for the year.
When researching your piece, create a briefing form that forces your client to answer the following questions:
Who is your reader?
What do you want the reader to do or know as a result of this communication?
What information must the reader have to achieve this? (All else is irrelevant.)
What are the consequences for the business if we don’t publish?
This last question is particularly powerful. If the verbose exec can’t articulate a good business case for publishing (or for including six paragraphs on how she’s “delivering transformational change across the business—blah, blah, blah”) then she needs to rethink.
Remember, it’s your job to help your verbose exec understand the difference between what she wants to say and what your readers need to hear.
10. Build a scrapbook of good examples.
At one business English course I ran, a participant said she’d been told that her conversational style wasn’t suitable for a business audience. Her verbose exec had figured that writing that’s easy to understand is simplistic and patronizing.
My advice in this situation? Point them to business publications like the FT and The Economist, which never assume that even their in-the-know readers understand specialist financial and economics terms.
Also show them Warren Buffett’s letters in Berkshire Hathaway’s annual reports. If clear, simple prose works for the world’s greatest investor, what could it do for your verbose exec?
Does your process allow you to rein in overenthusiastic editors? Please share any tips and ideas below.
Clare Lynch is chief business writer and trainer at Doris and Bertie, a U.K. communications agency that helps businesspeople ditch corporate-speak and talk like human beings. Follow her on Twitter @goodcopybadcopy.