6 reasons why an executive should care about writing without bullshit

Photo: Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”, Sony Pictures

If you’re an executive or senior manager, why trouble your people about clear writing? Does it really make a difference to how your organization runs?

Dramatically. It will change the tenor of how you work.

Frankly, “Writing Without Bullshit” is a departure for me. After 20 years as an analyst, I’m used to giving strategy advice to executives, not writing advice to everybody. So it’s easy for me to put the strategist’s hat back on and analyze what writing without bullshit will do for the enterprise.

If you’re a boss — or if you’re trying to convince the boss — here are the top six reasons why a commitment to clear, brief, bold communication will make a difference at your company.

Poor writing slows your organization down

The poor writing in your organization wastes time. In the WOBS Writing Survey that I conducted earlier this year, 81% of workers agreed that “Poorly written material wastes a lot of my time.” Wasted time is expensive.

People send first-draft, poorly thought out emails that confuse others by the dozens or hundreds. This results in a cascade of replies that miss the point, requests for clarification, and bewilderment. And your people end up spending five times as much effort on every issue as they need to.

Too many words means too much time spent reading and not enough spent acting. Workers in my survey told me that they spend 46 hours per week reading and writing. And 65% of them complained that the material they read was frequently too long, which made it less effective.

Jargon and unclear writing confuse people. They make bad decisions because they don’t properly understand the facts.

Imagine the benefits if everyone wrote in a short, clear, pointed, and easily skimmable way. More clarity means less confusion, more cohesion, and less waste. You give them faster computers and mail on their phones to make them more productive. Why not teach them to write in a way that boosts that productivity?

It creates a culture of truth

Fear drives much of corporate culture. Fuzzy, cover-your-ass writing is the manifestation of that fear.

Every time you send an email, publish a policy, or write a report that’s full of equivocation, jargon that obscures meaning, and passive voice that hides responsibility, you are reinforcing a culture of obfuscation. Every time someone reads such a document, they think, “Ah, the people who run this company are full of bullshit.”

When the CEO writes in clear, direct language, that lays the groundwork for a culture of truth.

When the executives write that way, it reinforces that culture.

And when the workers get praise for writing clearly, even about problems, they begin to believe that the company is interested in the truth, not just paying lip service to it.

A culture of truth attracts talent that wants to get things done. And that drives companies forward.

It tells customers you’re trustworthy

What about your communication to the world? What about your press releases, your product descriptions, your marketing materials?

When you publish jargon-laden gobbledegook, you’ll fool a few of the dumber people, but the smart ones will wonder what you’re trying to hide. A customer’s time is valuable. Draw them in, don’t piss them off.

On the other hand, when you say clearly what you mean, people respond. It’s not just “I know who these guys are.” It’s “I can trust these guys.” And in a world where customer experience makes all the difference, that pays off.

It surfaces new insights

When you insist that people say what they actually mean, you learn something. Forcing them to rewrite passive voice reveals who’s actually responsible for stuff. Writing in fewer words clarifies your actual meaning. Translating jargon into clear language clarifies thinking as well.

If you want your organization to grapple with the issues that matter, writing without bullshit is a good way to find out what they are.

It saves executives time

We all believe the time of the CEO and C-level executive is valuable. It’s why we pay them more, give them admins and schedulers, and write reports to educate them.

If poorly written material wastes time, then poorly written material that a senior executive reads could be wasting millions of dollars.

If you’re a senior executive, everybody who communicates with you should learn to write without bullshit. It will make you a lot more productive.

(It won’t hurt the productivity of everybody else reading their stuff, either.)

It makes the right people stand out

If you can’t tell what bullshit is, then you may praising the wrong people. All jokes aside, a talent for bullshit is not a qualification for management. If you keep promoting these people, they’ll eventually let you down, because they don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

On the other hand, if you identify and praise people who express themselves briefly and clearly, you’ll get more clarity like that. And it will be a lot easier to figure out who’s actually smart and who needs to think a little harder.

Once people can’t hide behind bullshit, you find out who they really are — and whether they deserve the next promotion, plum assignment, or position of responsibility.

If you agree with this, call me. I’ll train your people in clearer communication. Or you could just ask them to read the book.

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