Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The power of words

One of the things I have inherited from my father, apart from a large nose and a distressing ability to walk past friends and loved ones in the street without noticing them, is a love of words.

My father wrote English textbooks for schools, and waged a fierce campaign throughout my youth to try to mould me into a person who uses language sensitively. Eventually he got me to deny the split infinitive, to reject the unnecessary pronoun, and even to use 'different from' instead of 'different to'.

Thus we now share our amusement at ambiguous public use of English. I share my father's penchant for the sign in department stores that states 'Menswear'. We both always knew they did, particularly in moments of stress. He shares my delight in a sign outside some stables near my home which exhorts: 'Horse manure - please drive in'. We chuckle at American instructions like 'take out window' and 'pick up counter'.

Of course, when I joined the corporate world, I found a whole new language with just a passing resemblance to English: Jargon. I now talk of methodology without intending to refer to a study of methods. I will attempt to think out of the box without any consideration of containers. I cheerfully discuss blue sky business without any care for the prevailing meteorological conditions. These things cause my father to mutter under his breath, but he reluctantly accepts they have a place and are, frankly, inevitable. Nevertheless, in many ways, businesses fail to use jargon effectively, and instead of providing a shorthand for meaning, they confuse and obscure it. And that is just the start of the ways in which businesses frequently commit crimes against the language.

Now, I can accept that in the heat of the moment, speech is not necessarily an expression of purity of grammar and construction. The objective of the spoken word is communication, not the formality of syntax. Nevertheless, when it comes to the written word, the situation is different. I'm not talking about the casual, one-to-one scribbled note or email - that's just a written version of a phone call. I mean text created for wider consumption on behalf of one's business - text in brochures, presentations, blogs, newsletters, business reports and so on. Here, the writer has had the opportunity - indeed, the obligation - to clean up the stream of consciousness that comes in speech. I find so many instances of poor use of the language - even taking jargon into account - that it causes a sensitive soul like myself much distress.

But more to the point, it jars with an awful lot of people who are, perhaps, less likely than myself to hone in on whatever precise grammatical construct is broken, but know intuitively that it isn't expressed very well. I appreciate that some of us are to a degree dyslexic, but in important documents - particularly customer-facing ones - such people should ensure that their output is verified as free from error.

Some years ago, the chief executive of a well-known airline made the point that the cleanliness of an aircraft interior was important, because a passenger would extrapolate from insufficient care on interior maintenance to insufficient care on mechanical maintenance. The same is true of important or widely distributed written communication: if you can't present an topic in an organised way, and in a well-structured and well laid out document, then your customer (or stakeholder, or manager) will construe a similar lack of professionalism in your business.

I am conscious of this importance not just because of my heritage but also because I have seen it in countless business situations. I know that when receiving proposals from suppliers, it is possible to look beyond the language and style at the basic information content, but it is hard to do so, and there are inevitable inferences about the suitability of the supplier as a result. I have worked for executives who, on receiving a report that is not structured for quick assimilation by a busy director, will simply throw it back at you as not fit for purpose. And I have all too often read promotional material which simply does not focus the reader on the worth of its product.

Having produced countless documents of all of these types in my career so far, and learnt all too clearly what enhances as well as what gets in the way of the message, I want to help other business people to produce better quality written text. I am offering a service to prepare and improve all manner of written documents, from Powerpoint slides to technical manuals, under the headline "Is your business being heard?" The initial assessment and recommendation is free and without obligation. Playing even a small part in improving the written word of the nation's businesses is a passion and a pleasure.

And I know that my father will be delighted.