Ask these questions to subvert your bullshit culture

Photo: Dennis Skley via Flickr

Bullshit in your company is no accident. You can work on fixing it. Or you can just get people thinking by asking a few questions.

When you have to collaborate on bullshit documents, your soul is in peril. If bullshit pervades your company and your managers don’t care — and assuming yoiu can’t switch jobs — you’ll need a hobby to maintain your sanity. Asking annoying questions will keep you amused and aware, and might actually do some good.

I recommend asking questions like these — to your boss, your peers, or just somebody in power who might care. Ask them, not in a way that challenges authority, but sincerely, even naively. If you do, you might get somebody who matters to reconsider the assumptions behind what you write. That’s how change starts, even at the most hidebound organizations.

Who is the audience for this?

This is the most basic question. No one can fault you for asking it. But for the worst, most convoluted corporate documents, it’s a question the authors may have forgotten long ago.

Why ask this? Because when you get a straight answer (“shareholders,” “engineers in our customer base,” “regulators,”), you can then identify the parts of the document that don’t help that audience.

Once you’ve established the audience, you can ask, “why is this part in here, if it doesn’t address that audience?” And if the decision-makers in your organization are rational, you may be able to cut whole swaths of useless stuff — and not have to write them at all in your next document.

What does [buzzword] actually mean?

Jargon spreads like kudzu. But in a bullshit-laden organization, you can take it on one word at a time.

What do you mean by “distributed security architecture?”

What makes something “cloud-based?”

When you write “strategic,” what does that actually mean?

Your managers can’t object to your desire to define the words you use. You’ll end up creating a glossary of terms with actual meanings. And then you can ask, “Why don’t we use the simpler description in the glossary instead of that jargon term that a lot of people don’t know?”

At the very least, you’ll help your managers and colleagues to see just how much jargon you’re using.

Why does Microsoft Word keep putting green underlines under the text and saying it is passive voice?

Microsoft Word and most other text editing systems helpfully flag passive voice for you.

If you’re working on a piece of content written by someone else and it’s filled with green underlines, you can certainly ask if it’s a problem.

And you can ask why you can’t rewrite it in the active voice.

Ask this: “Can I use ‘we’ to make these sentences clearer?” Get permission to use “we” and you’re well on your way to replacing passive confusion with clarity.

Enlisting Microsoft Word’s features takes the onus off of you and puts it on an authority. Then you can start to create change without getting blamed for being a curmudgeon.

Are we really just saying [simpler explanation]?

Somebody hands you a long document and asks you to collaborate on it. So first you have to read it.

If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to figure out what it’s saying.

So write that down in a paragraph or two. And send those paragraphs back to the authors or your boss, asking “Is this what we are actually saying?”

If it is, then suggest that you put that nice, clear, short summary at the top.

And once you’ve done that, find stuff that’s redundant with the nice, clear summary and suggest deleting it.

Could we save time by trimming the review list?

The more reviewers you have, the more bullshit creeps into your writing. It’s inevitable, because the only way to address all the divergent viewpoints is to create a longer, less coherent document.

Think I’m kidding? According to the WOBS Writing Survey, only one in three business writers say their process for collecting and combining feedback is effective.

To get off the treadmill, edit the review list. Why do you need eight reviewers? Which three consistently add value? Take the rest off the list.

You may find some of the reviewers relieved to be free of the responsibility to return reviews on your deadline.

Sneak my book onto their desk

If you’re having a rational discussion about writing already, then I hope my book is a part of it. But sometimes, you know that for political or cultural reasons, you’ll never have that discussion.

If so, you’ll need to proceed by stealth.

Identify the person in your company who could make the biggest difference in the bullshit culture, but has resisted it so far.

Late at night, early in the morning, or on a weekend when no one is looking, leave a copy of Writing Without Bullshit on their desk. No note. Just leave it there.

Perhaps nothing will happen. But if it intrigues them enough to pick it up and start reading, perhaps some conversations will start.

Even if they don’t, you’ll get a little bit of satisfaction.

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