Effective Business Writing

I’m going to give you a paragraph to read and think about. Here’s the situation. A  large organization has invited a famous speaker to make a presentation. It’s impossible to predict how many people will show up. The committee chair – Jane Morgan – has made a backup plan in case there’s an overflow crowd:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Based on what you’ve read, what do you know Jane and her organization?

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The correct answer to my question should be that – aside from your assessment of Jane’s writing – you have no opinion of Jane and her organization. How could you? You don’t know anything about Jane. Does she have a college degree? How many years has she been with the organization? Is she reliable? Is she smart? Does she have leadership qualities? You have no way of knowing.

Similarly you know nothing about the organization. Is it honest? Innovative? Successful? Does it have a useful mission?

It would be ridiculous to make a judgment about Jane and her organization based on nothing but the three sentences you read a moment ago.

* * * * * *

But I can confidently tell you that every day – in offices across the United States – thousands upon thousands of employees like Jane use everyday writing tasks to try to convince others that they’re smart and they work for a superb organization or business. I’ve got to impress everyone. Otherwise they’ll think I’m stupid. They won’t respect me or my organization.

And so they try to make each sentence as long, elaborate, and tangled as they can. Here again is Jane’s message to the committee:

In the event of an excess of anticipated attendance, committee members are advised to carry out the following procedure. First, provide additional meeting space adjacent to the original location. Second, expand the reach of the presentation via electronic means.

Jane would save everyone’s time – including her own – if she wrote the instructions more simply, like this:

If too many people show up today, open another room, and set up a video broadcast of the presentation.

But she’s afraid to do that. They’ll think I’m stupid….They won’t respect me or the organization….

And so it goes.

Are you like Jane? I hope not. (The US government has a terrific business writing website: www.PlainLanguage.gov.)

 

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