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Bad writing is bad for business

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: buzzword bashing season! This year it’s Vulture and the Atlantic; a few years ago it was this wonderful piece from the Guardian. But I wonder if we can get beyond ‘aren’t buzzwords annoying?’

Hear me out. We read these articles. They go viral. We’re all in enthusiastic agreement: corporate-speak is ridiculous. Then a year or two pass and we see a new spate of thought pieces bemoaning it. The cycle continues; as people, we keep reading and sharing, as organisations, we keep communicating poorly.

Could we fix the issue once and for all if businesses understood what bad communication costs in cold, hard cash?

So here’s my tuppence – quite literally. All the ways bad writing is bad for your bottom line.

1. You're working inefficiently

How long do each of us spend ploughing through page-long emails? Rifling through lengthy ‘decks’ to try and find the bit that’s relevant to us? Looking up terms we don’t understand?

Perhaps the biggest cost of bad communication is in wasted people hours. Some of that’s measurable and easy to fix: if you rewrite your call centre scripts to make them pithier, you’ll be able to measure the minutes and hours you’re saving. But a lot of it lurks in other areas of our working lives: when was the last time you recorded the hours you took to review a report?

2. You're missing opportunities

If your teams can’t put their best ideas across clearly, those ideas won’t be picked up on or invested in. In Too Big To Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin talks about AIG (run by Bob Willumstad) asking for a bailout from the Federal Reserve (run by Tim Geithner) during the financial crash:

About halfway down the page was the startling detail… “$1 trillion of exposures are concentrated with 12 major financial institutions.” You didn’t have to be a Harvard MBA to instantly comprehend that figure: if AIG went under, it could take the entire financial system along with it. Geithner glanced at the document cursorily and put it away.

Yup, a buried main point contributed to the financial crash. Complex writing can make you miss even the most important information.

3. You're not recruiting or retaining the best people

First, recruitment: you don’t know who you’re missing out on because of poorly worded recruitment comms.

Recently, we worked with a luxury hotel group to rewrite their job adverts – including spending time in their London hotel to get a sense of the ambience (I know, it’s a tough job). We went away and wrote the ads by talking about housekeepers as ‘sticklers for detail’ and their restaurant as a ‘well oiled machine looking for people to keep pace’. In other words, we made sure the language felt fresh. The ads made you want to apply. And the results speak for themselves: more people applied to the hotel, and better yet, more were suitable candidates. So all in all, they cut the time it normally takes to hire by 13%.

Then there are culture costs – words like retention, turnover and even churn. According to Hayes, 43% of people leave jobs because they’re unhappy with their company’s culture. And what’s one of the things that creates your culture? Yup, your communication: even small details (like whether you say people or resource, for example) can have a big impact on how your team feel.

4. You could get hit hard by regulators or legal costs 

I’ve talked a lot about your internal writing – your emails, reports and presentations – but of course, your outward-facing comms are equally important. And obviously, you can track this with your advertising and brand ‘return on investment’ type figures: if you don’t have a strong enough set of messages, people won’t buy your products.

But worse still, you can face penalties for complicated communication. Obviously finance and utilities companies most often get slapped on the wrist from regulators, but it can even hit local councils hard in the courtroom. 

So there you have it. It’s time to address bad writing in business for what it is: not just an irritation, but an unnecessary cost. If you’d like some help pinching the pennies, you know where we are.

And we’ve even given away a few of our secrets for free in our eBook, The End of the Hunch.