How much money is bad writing costing your business?

Unclear messages tax the time and patience of colleagues, clients, partners and execs. Clarifying and streamlining your emails, letters, manuals, etc., will save your organization big bucks.

Poor communication can affect your bottom line.

Bad writing causes 40 percent of the cost of managing business transactions, writes William H. DuBay, a readability expert at Impact Information, in Working with Plain Language (PDF).

He cites:

  • Newsletters that reach only a fraction of the targeted audience
  • Press releases that never make the news
  • Websites that fail to inform and motivate readers to act
  • Forms and applications that are badly filled in or left incomplete
  • Memos and business letters that require endless clarification
  • Legal notices and procedures that no one can read

How much is bad writing costing your organization?

“Try to imagine the costs of poor writing … in business, government, and law,” writes Joseph Kimble, chair of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s research and writing department. “The costs are almost beyond imagining, and certainly beyond calculating.”

In his plain language treatise, “Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please,” Kimble goes beyond trying to imagine those costs. He shares 25 case studies of organizations that have saved time and money and otherwise improved business practices by making their copy easier to read. Among them:

  • Save money. FedEx saved $400,000 per year by rewriting operations manuals to make it 80 percent less time consuming for users to find the information they were looking for. That doesn’t count the costs of mistakes when users couldn’t find the right answers.
  • Save time. After the FCC rewrote certain regulations in plain language in 1977, the agency reassigned five full-time staff members to more productive duties. Before the rewrites, all five were needed to answer questions about the regulations from the public.
  • Move people to act. When the U.S. Army rewrote a memo to 129 officers, suggesting that they perform a specific task, those who got the more readable memo were twice as likely to act on the day they received it.
  • Improve service. After technical writers at General Electric rewrote software manuals, customer calls asking questions about the software dropped by 125 calls per customer. The company estimates that is saves up to $375,000 a year for each business customer with the revised manual.
  • Increase reading speed. The U.S. Navy learned it could save $27 million to $37 million a year in officer time by rewriting its business memos. Officers could read the revised memos in 17 to 27 percent less time.

Readable copy, Kimble writes:

  • Streamlines procedures and paperwork, makes it easier to train staff, and increases staff productivity and morale
  • Reduces confusion, complaints, and claims, and it improves customer satisfaction
  • Increases sales and raises the company’s standing in the marketplace

How can you measure and report the cost of bad writing at your organization? How can you sell the benefits of readable copy? It could be a million-dollar question for your company.

Ann Wylie is president of Wylie Communications. A version of this post first appeared on the Wylie Communications blog.

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