Can a piece of writing be so bad that it physically harms the reader? Yes, if it fails what master copywriter Bob Bly calls “the breath test.”
Try this. Have a look below at the first sentence of a column by economist and CNBC host Larry Kudlow. (Yes, that is a single sentence below.) See if you can read the entire thing without stopping to take a breath.
“Despite the historic expansion of the federal government’s involvement in, intervention in, and control of the economy — including Bailout Nation; takeovers of banks, car companies, insurance firms, Fannie, Freddie, AIG, GM, Chrysler, and GMAC; large-scale tax threats; overregulation; an attempted takeover of the health-care sector; ultra-easy money; a declining dollar; and unprecedented spending and debt creation — despite all the things that would be expected to destroy the economy — all this socialism lite and the degrading of incentives and rewards for success — despite all this, the U.S. economy has not been destroyed.”
(“Faith in Free-Market Capitalism Is Being Rewarded“ — Dec 30, 2009)
Kudlow is a brilliant former Fed and OMB economist, a gifted speaker and a talented writer. Yet even he fails the breath test here. Sometimes when we’re writing on a topic we’re passionate about, we try to cram too much detail into a single sentence. We can’t help ourselves; we’re excited and we want to get it all out.
But our reader needs to receive our information at a reasonable pace. Even more important, our reader needs oxygen.
As you review your writing, read it aloud and give every sentence the breath test. Remember, your reader can’t take whatever action you want him to take… if he’s passed out or dead.
Working World has published an article I wrote for job-seekers, “3 ways to stand out for a job.”
My wife works for a small software company. For months last year, the business struggled to stay afloat, and the entire staff knew that without new investment money the company would dissolve and everyone would be out of a job.
So imagine what the average worker thought when they read this subject line in an email sent by the CEO to the whole company:
To: All Employees
The employees thought what you’re probably thinking — bad news. So they were shocked when they opened and read the email. Turns out, the CEO was enthusiastically announcing that a new investor had acquired the company. It was this company-saving deal that had “closed.” Not the company itself. Phew!
The point is, the CEO’s email subject could have given any of his employees a cardiac event. Had he simply stopped to consider how they might read it — that the day they dreaded had finally come, and the business was shutting down — he might have used a different subject line. Maybe something like, “Great news on the financing front!”
Always try to think like your reader when you write. You’re writing for them, after all, and the more you can see things from their point of view, the more effective your writing will be.
Federal government news site Fedsmith.com has published my article on writing, “Do You Make These Seven Common Writing Mistakes?”
In the 1990s, Volvo found itself with an excess of green cars. People just didn’t want them. So the Sales and Marketing departments came up with all sorts of great deals just for green Volvos—and they started selling. Finally.
Problem is, no one in Sales or Marketing thought to tell the rest of the organization what they were up to. So Manufacturing, which saw its green cars suddenly flying out the door, started ramping up production of new ones!
Now, consider how much more likely you are to remember that story than you’d remember if I simply wrote, “Increase communication across departments to improve organizational effectiveness.”
Stories engage our emotions. They make us angry, motivated, enthusiastic. They make us remember. They even make us want to tell others.
The best way to communicate an important point or insight is to put it into story form. If you want your written documents and presentations to compel your staff, colleagues or other constituents to take action, become a great storyteller.
The most famous speech in American history, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, lasted two minutes.
Amazingly, President Lincoln wasn’t even the event’s featured speaker. That was Congressman Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Everett spoke for over two hours. Remember learning about his speech? Neither do I.
Shorter is better.
You’ve probably heard these sayings:
Shakespeare: “Brevity is the soul of wit.”
T.S. Eliot: “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”
You: “Goodness! Is this email ever going to end?”
Never be afraid to write a short document. Even extremely short. Some of the most powerful, memorable and persuasive letters and emails are just a few lines. Make your point and get out. A brief document, one with no fat, packs a lot more punch than one that’s bloated with unnecessary words.
And that’s all I have to say about this.
Are your emails, presentations and other work documents a little lifeless?
It’s understandable. Most of us have learned in our careers to think of a well-written document as stilted, formal, humorless. And we’ve learned to write that way.
What a shame. Who says we should equate being professional with being boring?
Writing with a little humor reminds your readers that there’s a real person on the other end of the document. That can make a huge difference in how your readers judge both your written work and you.
As a young copywriter looking for clients, I often sent out a short pitch letter that ended with this message: “Want samples of my writing? Let me know. I can send you a few, a bunch, or enough to prop open your office door.”
Not the funniest thing you’ve ever read. Not even laugh-out-loud funny. But it served an important purpose: It humanized me for prospective clients. Many hired me from this pitch letter alone. And many made a point of telling me that they enjoyed this last line. People don’t expect to find anything even remotely amusing in a document they read at work. It’s a nice surprise.
Of course, when adding humor to a professional document of any type (email, report, etc.), you need to keep in mind some important rules:
- No profanity.
- No offensive or off-color humor.
- No humor that makes the reader or anyone else (except yourself) the butt of the joke.
- Use humor sparingly. You’re writing a professional document, not a comedian’s monologue.
- Start serious. You earn the right to be amusing only after you’ve demonstrated your document’s seriousness.
Not sure whether a line you want to use is actually funny enough, or even appropriate, for the document you’re writing? Ask a friend or colleague. Then use your own best judgment.
And remember: You can be professional… and funny. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Would you prefer to read a document at work that nearly put you to sleep, or one that gave you the same information but also made you smile a few times?