Making your words count

Oct 28 2013 by Euan Semple Print This Article

Why is so much business writing so dull? I don't mean dull as in 'not exciting' - given the context, excitement is probably asking too much. What I mean is dull as in 'so boring that most people don't bother to read it'. I'm talking about those 40-page reports that keep people so busy, written to a template, created as part of a process, formatted to within an inch of their lives to make sure they match all the other reports, and then stored on file server never to be seen again.

But it doesn't have to be like this. For small businesses or entrepreneurs, there is certainly no reason to adopt formal business approaches. And in many cases, larger organisations could also benefit from a change in approach. We could achieve so much more, and for a lot less pain and effort, if we were prepared to learn a few lessons in communication from the web.

If you start from the beginning using social tools to conduct your business the need for discrete business documents diminishes. Whether it is using a wiki to produce documentation or policy, using Twitter-like tools to keep up to date on day to day activities, or blogging to explain policy and share context about challenges and opportunities, you will be conveying more information, more effectively, as part of your day to day work.

And this is key. If you try to communicate things that aren't useful to you on a day to basis, then you won't do it. Learning the ropes needn't be difficult and can be a lot of fun. Tinkering with the tools at home is more and more common these days and it is a small step to bring some of that experience into the workplace.

On the web we have to work hard to attract and hold people's attention. We have to be more direct, we have to say what we think, and we can't waste words doing it. Obviously the 140 character limit for a Tweet is an extreme example, but even blog posts, if they are to be read and shared, have to be direct and to the point. The other thing writing for the web has to be if it is going to work is connected. Our content has to relate to, link to, and enhance other content elsewhere.

A good blogger knows that they can add value by connecting their readers to other content, often not even written by them or on their site. Referencing the ideas that promoted your thought, and helping people access other writing that enhances it, adds real value. In fact this was precisely why Tim Berners Lee invented the web when he was at CERN, the physics laboratory in Switzerland. He was fed up with people writing documents with no reference to other existing documentation, sometime repeating what had been written before, not building on other ideas, and not leading to further learning. The humble hyperlink gives us the power to link to connected ideas and this is what makes the web so powerful and compelling.

To have this sort of clarity and impact though, we need to know what we want to say. We have to get better at extracting the essence of the idea we are trying to convey and strip it of extraneous padding. Part of this padding is the formality we have come to expect in business communication. But let's face it, how much of this adds value and enhances meaning?

Getting back to plain language and saying what we mean is ridiculously hard when we have been used to doing otherwise. Remembering how to talk normally can feel challenging. It is like losing some of our armour and can leave us feeling raw and exposed. But this protection comes at a price. We all end up sounding safe and sounding the same. In our attempts to make everything sound 'business-like' we end up saying very little.

If you want your ideas to be shared by trusted networks then authenticity is key. In the early days of blogging we talked about 'finding our voice', and the same is still true. What sort of tone, what sort of language, how long should the sentences be, what topics are OK to talk about and what not? There is much to learn but it is a rewarding process that leads to greater effectiveness and clarity of purpose.

Certainly more and more of your staff will be using these tools and will have different expectations of your communication with them in the future. Not that you want to try too hard to impress them. We all know that feeling of watching your Dad dancing at a disco. You feel proud of him for having a go but you really wish he would sit down.

Social media can feel the same but don't worry. Start small, start by watching and learning, learn the ropes at home, and gradually apply the same principles at work. The conversations will start to flow naturally, you will find your voice, you will build your networks, and people will look forward to reading your latest blog post rather than dreading yet another meaningless memo written by a committee!


About The Author

Euan Semple
Euan Semple

Consultant, speaker and author of Organizations Don't Tweet - People Do, Euan Semple was one of the first people to introduce what have since become known as social media tools into a large, successful organisation. He is passionate about turning the the social web into something we can understand and gain real benefit from.