Should Business Writing be Beautiful?

Can business writing be beautiful? Can the language of press releases, corporate websites and marketing prospectuses paint a picture?

Can it enhance understanding? Can it inspire?

Yes — and it should.

I read The Goldfinch, a Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, while working on a six-month copywriting assignment for a multinational company. Ms. Tartt is a master of the show-don’t-tell maxim. She describes herself as a miniaturist, painting intricate murals with her words. Anyone who has read the book will know what she means by this; it’s one of the reasons she was awarded the Pulitzer.

The qualities that make literary fiction like The Goldfinch so beautiful can be achieved in business copy as well. Beautiful business writing does the following:

  • Helps your reader form an accurate mental picture of your operations or product
  • Creates understanding of your business and the world in which it operates
  • Inspires people

This holds true whether you’re a financial services firm or a waste disposal company. And it’s worth taking the time to do.

Apply These Tests to Your Copy

Business language often obfuscates. It deals in abstractions rather than details. Look at a corporate press release or website and see if you form any mental images as you read. Has the copy painted a picture for you? Could you turn around and explain what you just read to a 10-year-old? Has the language enhanced your understanding of this business and the world in which it operates?

I see business lingo like best-in-class operating platforms and strategic optimization all the time. These words paint no pictures. They do not enhance understanding. They dull the mind.

“I Don’t Care about the Grammar”

I’ll never forget when the CEO of a multinational company said to me, “I don’t care if the grammar is perfect — it just needs to feel personal!”

Personal. That was the word he always used when critiquing copy. He ran a company with 60,000 employees and he wanted every memo we wrote on his behalf to feel personal.

Years later, I still think about that CEO when I write copy. So often, executives get their writing priorities wrong. They want their copy to “flow” and “read well” — but they’d never use that language in a real conversation.

When I’m obsessing over the placement of a comma or the rhythm of a sentence, I stop myself and ask: Would I sound like a pompous idiot saying this out loud? That helps keep humanity at the center of my writing.

As that CEO reminded me, the purpose of writing is not to style sentences — it’s to communicate and connect…with humans.

Writing by Committee

In the business world, it is common for writing to occur “by committee.” It happens like this: An individual writes a piece of copy. The copy is then circulated to more senior people for “approval”. (Notice I did not say “fact-checking”).

Once everyone has had their say, the copy is returned to the writer eviscerated. Sentences have been “softened,” unnecessary words have been added, meaning has been obfuscated.

If your copy must be written by committee, then at least make sure everyone operates from the same first principle: The purpose of a sentence is to impart meaning and enhance understanding.

The Bloomberg News Guide to Writing

I started my career as a reporter at Bloomberg News. One of the maxims of that organization was that we owed our readers transparent, fact-based writing. Industry jargon, cliches, esoteric financial terms devoid of context — these had no place in our copy. We were to show, not tell. Our role was to explain, not to show off our knowledge.

The result was that Bloomberg articles taught you things — like the mechanics of the bond market. I still remember writing sentences like:

Bond prices rose, pushing down yields, as investors sought the safety of government assets… Yields fall when prices rise.

We were not to assume readers understood how bonds worked. Bond traders may know that prices and yields are inversely related, but other people do not, and we served them too.

Meaningless Words

The problem with business copy today is that it is too abstract. Readers have to do mental gymnastics to achieve understanding. Phrases like “strategic positioning,” “management platform,” “best in class” — they create more questions than answers. (What class are you best in? How was this determined?)

If you want to impress your reader, your content needs to enhance understanding. Apply these tests to your copy:

  • Does the copy create a mental image for the reader? I can’t visualize a “management platform.”
  • Does your copy create understanding? Have you spelled out how your business creates value, or are you hiding behind catchphrases?
  • Does your copy inspire? Do you talk about your ideals in a sincere way? Every business has some philosophy of how the world should work. How do you impart yours?

Are you Making Your Customers Feel Dumb?

In the business world, we “soften” sentences. We “massage” quotes. Sometimes softening is necessary; language must allow for complexity and nuance. But in other cases, we soften or massage language because we are uncomfortable stating things as they are. We are accustomed to hiding meaning — truth! — in a pretty oratorical wrapper.

As a copywriter, I will mark up a document with comments like, What does this actually mean? or This isn’t clear to the layperson. I’m not doing this to be clever or justify my rate. I’m doing it because you’ve got my interest, but the way you said it made my brain hurt, and now I feel dumb.

You don’t want your actual customers to feel that way, do you?

But our customers are smarter than you, you might say. They’re professionals and executives and they speak the language of our industry.

Well, okay — but a lot of industry insiders couldn’t explain their industry jargon if you asked them to. A lot of them fake understanding. Or think of the 18-year-old budding genius who visits your website. Your copy makes a light bulb go on in his head and he decides to apply for a job at your company. Or imagine the government regulator who checks out your site for some reason — and leaves it with a distinctly positive impression of your business.

Copywriters and marketing departments rightly debate the placement of commas and the proper use of semicolons. But excellent writing does not result from these particulars alone. It occurs when executives commit to language that enhances understanding, paints pictures and imparts meaning. These objectives should be championed inside of companies and enshrined in their style guides along with the rules of grammar and usage. ♦

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