Poorly written collateral is costing you time. Time is money.
Today we catch up with Josh Bernoff, noted business writer, former Forrester Research analyst and author of the succinctly titled book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. I recently stumbled upon a piece Josh wrote for The Daily Beast, entitled Bad writing costs businesses billions. As you might imagine, the idea that quality of writing doesn’t just set businesses apart, but dramatically affects their bottom lines, piqued my interest.
“Quality of writing is how you distinguish yourself,” Josh says. “It’s how people communicate at work. Do it well and you’ll get ahead.”
In his article, Josh remarks on “emails from colleagues who fail to come to the point…”, “reports that don’t make clear what’s happening or what your management should do about it…” and “websites, marketing materials and press releases filled with jargon and meaningless superlatives”.
Your competitors are reaping the rewards of your oversights
Josh surveyed 547 business writers, and found eight out of 10 agreed that “poorly written material wastes a lot of my time.” Anecdotally obvious, perhaps, but he does the maths: workers are estimated to spend about 22% of their working day reading things, and it’s estimated that America spends 6% of its total wages on time wasted trying to decipher badly written content. That’s equivalent to nearly $400 billion a year.
If I were to make a UK market estimate, a back-of-a-napkin calculation makes that around £324 billion at the current exchange rate: if US GDP is roughly seven times that of the UK, then the cost of bad writing to the UK market is about £46 billion.
The cost of bad writing to the UK market is about £46 billion
A high price tag
These numbers all sound crazy high, but we can put them into context; it wasn’t an ice age ago that we reported Gallup’s estimate that the price of poor employee engagement in the US is somewhere between $450 and $500 billion, of which, of course, internal communications is major contributor.
“Businesses need to recognise that bad writing is a drain on productivity,” says Josh. “If you have nothing to say, say nothing. If you have something to say, say it as briefly as possible.”
However you look at it, bad standards of writing create an inefficiency with a high price tag. Apply the same logic to recruitment marketing fodder that advertises a job, but doesn’t sell the company enough, for example, and you could be talking about missing the very top candidates for a role. If your competitors are reaping the rewards of your oversights, it’s not hard to see there’s an issue there that will manifest on your bottom line.
If you have something to say, say it as briefly as possible
Get to the point
As any writer knows, when you’re too close to your own work it’s often hard to see the wood for the trees in terms of quality. So how do business leaders know if their company communications are perpetuating bad practice?
“There are telltale signs,” explains Josh. “You might often use twice as many words as you need, or you don’t get to the point quickly, or you tend to obscure your meaning with too many big words. The best thing to do is ask the people you work with: ‘Do you think the stuff I write is clear and succinct?’ Any answer other that a very quick ‘Yes’ means you have a problem.”
Admitting you have a problem is always the first step to a solution. Perhaps you seek the help of a comms agency or you choose to do things in-house.
You tend to obscure your meaning with too many big words
“Start corporate training, as you would with any other skill like running meetings or spreadsheet work,” says Josh. “It has to be a directive from the top, or it won’t spread very quickly.”
And like any skill to be developed, there should be processes in place to review the quality of written materials sent out.
Producing a piece of content doesn’t mean creating whatever you can and flinging it out into the virtual ocean to see what bites. Content strategy best practice always advocates an adapt-and-improve ethos to writing. What kind of messaging resonates with the intended audience? What actions do they take as a result? How can we refine that?
Interestingly, however, Josh finds that just under a third of the writers surveyed believe they have a robust system for reviewing their content. That’s leaving quite a lot of leeway for a deluge of throwaway, untargeted messages. If you want to get the best from your business writing, call on the specific skills of the reviewers at your disposal. Reviewers such as your partner agency.
“Some reviewers are better at helping you organise your content, others are better with words, others may have technical expertise,” says Josh. “The key is to tell each reviewer what you want from them, and get all the reviews back in time to address them in your writing.”
To maximise the value of your writing and ensure there’s no throwaway, particularly with marketing material, businesses need writers to hand that have the creative nous to produce something original and engaging, and the analytical nous to ensure that each piece of content works its hardest to reach the right eyes. The mantra from the Content Marketing Institute is to produce the minimum amount of content for the maximum amount of behaviour change. As a writer, that’s your sweet spot. People trained in journalism and reporting tend to be very good at this.
The minimum amount of content for the maximum amount of behaviour change
We’ve discussed the convergence of journalism and content marketing before and I think Josh’s findings uphold that business need. Indeed, I’ve said myself that journalists naturally make good copywriters, which is to some extent why many journalists like me have found themselves in this game. We’re trained fact-checkers, we have honed the art of turning the complex into the simple, and the mundane into the exciting.
“[Journalists] are succinct and direct, so I think they have the right instincts,” says Josh.
But we don’t even have to look to the journalists that turned their efforts to marketing for inspiration. There are of course many people, perhaps unsurprisingly dominating the business world, that are getting their writing right.
“Two people who express themselves very clearly are Tim Cook of Apple and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway,” remarks Josh. “Elon Musk is good, too.”
Businesses need writers to hand that have the creative nous
And the notably bad?
“Well, I’m announcing the Bullshitty Awards winners on February 16 at 14:00 Eastern Time (19:00 GMT),” he continues. “People can hear about the worst offenders then. There are plenty of contenders.”
The reason so many good correspondents turn their efforts towards the agency world is because there is value they can add, and quite substantial value when you can actually put a figure on it. There’s an unmet need inherent in sub-standard business writing; it might be time to admit this to yourself and find better writers. Otherwise you’ll have a lot of Dear Johns that are costing you dear.