Not sure if it’s bullshit? Try reading it out loud.

out loud
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I narrated the audiobook for Writing Without Bullshit this week, spending about 12 hours in the studio. It was a vivid reminder of how absurd some prose sounds when read out loud — which is a good test for whether your writing is bullshit.

A good nonfiction audiobook sounds natural, as if someone is explaining something or telling you a story. The same should apply to pretty-much anything you write in business: it should be easy to read it out loud and easy to understand when you do. If you stumble or sound stilted or incomprehensible, then what you’ve written is bullshit. Long sentences, passive voice, and jargon are usually the problem.

My book is made up of passages like this, which sound fine when read out loud (audio follows):

Technology has made it breathtakingly easy for anybody to create content and distribute it to thousands of people. Unfortunately, nobody told those creators what it takes to create good content, so we’re stuck wading through a deluge of drivel.

You know this is a problem. I’m here to tell you that it’s also an opportunity.

Of course, I’d quoted a lot of material from other sources. Some of it was also easy to read out loud, like this passage from Google’s web site:

Focus on the user and all else will follow. Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line. Our homepage interface is clear and simple, and pages load instantly. Placement in search results is never sold to anyone, and advertising is not only clearly marked as such, it offers relevant content and is not distracting. And when we build new tools and applications, we believe they should work so well you don’t have to consider how they might have been designed differently.

If somebody asked Larry Page what Google thinks is important, you could easily imagine him responding with this statement; while it’s not quite conversational, you could certainly hear him saying it out loud.

On the other hand, try saying this out loud (from a Johnson & Johnson job description):

The successful candidate will be the key leader and customer advocate working closely with the Strategic Account and Sales Leaders across J&J to facilitate execution against strategic account terms, interface with account management executives and sales leaders enterprise-wide to align and deliver high quality service and value, ensure coordinated execution of customer solutions through clinical and economic services and programs, and facilitate the management of and coordinate direct sales personnel and resources.

It’s an exercise in breath control just to get to the end of that sentence. And once you do, nobody has any idea what you were talking about. Can you imagine a J&J recruiter asking a hiring manager what the hire should do, and the hiring manager responding with this sentence? You’d think the guy was from another planet.

I (author) planted a land-mine for myself (narrator) by including an SAP press release in the book. It includes this very standard passage, which reveals its absurdity if you try to read it out loud (I narrated it at double speed).

Any statements contained in this document that are not historical facts are forward-looking statements as defined in the U.S. Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Words such as “anticipate,” “believe,” “estimate,” “expect,” “forecast,” “intend,” “may,” “plan,” “project,” “predict,” “should” and “will” and similar expressions as they relate to SAP are intended to identify such forward-looking statements. SAP undertakes no obligation to publicly update or revise any forward-looking statements. All forward-looking statements are subject to various risks and uncertainties that could cause actual results to differ materially from expectations. The factors that could affect SAP’s future financial results are discussed more fully in SAP’s filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), including SAP’s most recent Annual Report on Form 20-F filed with the SEC. Readers are cautioned not to place undue reliance on these forward-looking statements, which speak only as of their dates.

Go ahead, read your reports, your manuals, your blog posts, or your emails out loud. If you sound like a fool, you’re doing it wrong.

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  1. This is excellent advice. I often read something aloud while reviewing because doing so slows you down enough to find mistakes. And if you practically doze off while reading it, you know it will do the same to the consumer.

  2. I use a ‘freemium’ tool called Natural Reader, which reads text back to you. The voice synthesis isn’t perfect, but it’s more than good enough to show up problems in my text.