By Tom Sant
When we start work, we have little to no experience in writing appropriately for business. Instead, we tend to copy what others have produced—which typically means copying somebody else’s bad example. We adopt an artificial tone that we think sounds smart or professional, but is actually more likely to sound stilted or awkward. In short, we begin to communicate in languages that don’t work. I have worked with thousands of business professionals all over the world, helping them articulate important messages about their businesses, their products, their solutions, their innovations, and their goals for the future. I’ll admit that I’ve occasionally been frustrated by the apparent inability of well-educated people to communicate their ideas clearly. But I’ve also been gratified and humbled to see people who had struggled to express themselves adopt a few basic techniques, practice them, and develop a capacity for good writing that they never dreamed they possessed. From these experiences, I’ve come to believe that good writing is a skill, one that can be learned. Just a few basic principles, when followed intelligently, can help business and technical professionals communicate more successfully. Raising these principles to a level of conscious awareness ultimately helps a writer do a better job
The Language of Success
What is the language of success? In a phrase, it’s language that works. The word “success” specifically refers to whether a given message fulfills the goal for which it was created. The language of success succeeds, in other words, because it transfers information clearly and quickly so that another person can use that information to do his or her job. Or, because it expresses our opinions in a way that sounds reasonable and justified, so that we appear to be a person whose opinion actually matters. It succeeds because it’s language that cuts through the clutter of commercial and marketing hype to deliver a persuasive message, enabling our customers to see that what we offer is a sensible solution to meeting their needs, solving their problems, strengthening their organizations, and obtaining superior value in the process. The language of success is writing that works for a living. It’s writing that makes a point and ultimately makes a difference. But the language of success is also a way of expressing yourself so that people see your true value. The success in this sense refers to your own growth, your career development, and your influence. If you learn to write clearly and concisely, your colleagues and customers will see you as a competent professional.
We all assume that writing mirrors thinking. Bad writing suggests sloppy thinking. Good writing suggests clear thinking. If you can write effectively about a particular subject, we assume you understand that subject. We start to view you as an authority on the topic. By writing clearly, you are seen as someone who is credible. Other people are more likely to trust you. There’s a third dimension to the language of success. It’s the fact that we tend to assume that writing reveals character or a writer’s true intentions. If someone writes in a stilted, pompous style, we suspect he is actually insecure and doesn’t trust us to take his information seriously. If people use flowery language or waffle constantly, refusing to make a point directly, we may think they are trying to bamboozle us. For example, the real damage done by those two disastrous emails from CEOs was not in misleading employees about what work needed to be done or how managers should set their priorities. The real damage, I think, came from the fact that you can’t read those emails without coming to a rather damning conclusion about the characters of the individuals who wrote them. That may not be fair. Perhaps both of these men were having very bad days and experienced the kind of meltdown we’ve all gone through from time to time. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that they happened to record their meltdowns in print and email them to their employees. But fair or not, we tend to judge people as people by the way they write. We often do it unconsciously, but we definitely do it.
In using the language of success you should have a unique voice. Your writing should sound like you. Too often, however, we lapse into artificial voices that don’t sound like us at all. We imitate languages that are used all around us. In fact, they are so pervasive that a young person who is fairly new in the workplace may conclude these languages are the “correct” way to write in business. To a veteran with many years of experience, these odd ways of writing may no longer sound so odd. Like an annoying whine in the air conditioning unit, like a constant pounding in the plumbing, like brakes that squeal whenever we press the pedal, after a while the irritating grate and clunk and rasp of these languages may fade into the background. However, they still create strain. They still interfere with effective communication. They are still nonfunctional. And it’s worth the effort to eliminate them.
Four Languages That Don’t Work
Stay alert and you’ll start to notice four of these nonfunctional languages that pop up all the time. I call them Fluff, Guff, Geek, and Weasel. These are languages of failure, not success. These are languages that you definitely don’t want to use. Unfortunately, we’re immersed in them, and if you imitate what you get in your own email inbox without thinking, you’ll find that you lapse into them unaware.
Fluff s the language of grandiose claims, vague assertions, and hype. We see this kind of language in marketing materials, on corporate websites, in proposals and sales letters. But it’s so insidious, it can creep into our ordinary writing style.
Guffs is the language of the bureaucrat. It’s needlessly complex, pompous, and dense. The writer proficient in Guff writes long, long sentences, uses big words, including undefined technical terms, and constructs his or her sentences in passive voice. As a result, reading this kind of writing is akin to slogging through a swamp where the mud sucks at your boots with every step you take. George Orwell attacked this kind of writing in a famous essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He argued that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Geek is language that’s too technical or too obscure for the intended reader. People use Geek when they don’t take the time to think about the reader. They don’t stop to consider whether the person who will receive this message has the same background, the same level of technical expertise, the same vocabulary even, as the writer. Lazy writers, the ones who use Geek all the time, don’t bother to think about the reader. Instead, they write to the only audience who really matters to them: themselves. They use all of the jargon, acronyms, and cryptic references that only someone as knowledgeable of the subject as they are could possibly understand. And, unlike Guff, the use of Geek is not limited to writing. You’re quite likely to hear someone using Geek conversationally or in a presentation, too.
Weasel is language that sounds wishy-washy, even sneaky. It avoids saying anything definitively. Instead, every assertion is qualified to death. Words and phrases are constantly used to hedge the meaning of what’s being said. Here’s an example, where I’ve put the weasel words and phrases in bold: Poor Cynthia. She probably believes she’s written a persuasive message to Dr. Isawaki. Instead, she’s created a message that sounds fawning and weak. Like the other languages we’ve discussed, Weasel is a particular combination of vocabulary choices and sentence structures. Specifically, it involves using:
• Weasel words
• Passive voice
• Subjunctive mood
There are certain “weasel words” that modify the meaning of what you’re saying to the point that you appear to be saying one thing when you’re actually saying the exact opposite. Weasel words and phrases include “may,” “might,” “could,” “can,” “can be,” “virtually,” “up to,” “as much as,”“help,” “like,” “believe,” “possibly,” and similar qualifiers that create enough wiggle room for a rhino.
Some of the weasel words are qualifiers. They give us protection, “plausible deniability” as they say in Washington. Something “might” happen. Results “may” indicate. It’s normal in the course of business to use terms like these because you don’t want to appear to make a commitment you can’t keep. (Or, your lawyers don’t want you to make a commitment that could cause a dispute later on.)
Excerpted by permission of the publisher from The Language of Success by Tom Sant. Copyright 2008. Published by AMACOM.
About the Author(s)
Tom Sant is the cofounder of Hyde Park Partners, a consulting company that specializes in improving sales processes and messages. He has worked with major corporations around the world, including AT&T, HSBC, Booz Allen, and Microsoft. He is the author of Persuasive Business Proposals, The Giants of Sales, and The Language of Success.