Number theories

There’s no single, correct way to show numbers in business writing. The only “rule” is to be consistent: $1 million, $1,000,000 and a million dollars should never appear in the same document.

That said, most writers rely on a combination of the AP Stylebook (or The Economist Style Guide if you write for international audiences) and common sense. Here are guidelines:

  1. Spell out numbers under 11, centuries (e.g. the nineteenth) and decades (the Eighties).
  2. Don’t start a sentence with a numeral. “Eleven geese fell from the sky,” not “11 geese.” Try not to begin with a number at all: “Jane saw 11 geese falling from the sky.”
  3. For numbers over 1 million, use a numeral plus a word. “More than 830 million people speak Mandarin.”
  4. Write out the word “percent” in formal business documents and on the web. Avoid symbols in general: No. 1 is better than #1.
  5. Proper names should be consistent with the entity’s preferred usage: 3M, Big Ten, 50 Cent.

When verbs attack

Sometimes it seems like verbs are taking over the world—or at least, overunning the noun category. I’m creating a list of nouns that have been verbed, for better or worse. What are your favorites (and least favorites)?

The Good: Bookended, headquartered, googled, waffled, texted

The Bad: Incentivized, guested, friended, gifted, conferenced, dialogued, leveraged, tasked

The Ugly: Incested, usagized, sunsetted, podiumed, actioned, impacted, boilerplated

Fix it, quick

These easy-to-avoid errors can ruin an email, resumé or other business document.

  • Font is too big or too small. The best size is generally between 10 and 12. When in doubt, go with 11.
  • Incompatible fonts. Callisto looked great when you formatted your report, but my computer converts it to Times Roman 10—which my middle-aged eyes can’t read.
  • Multiple fonts and/or colors. Simplicity is key to a professional presentation. Emphasize your points (sparingly) with italics or boldface.
  • WTF is CAMCA?  Virtually every acronym needs to be spelled out the first time you use it. Put the abbreviation in parentheses after the name if you plan to mention it again, e.g. Commercial Arbitration and Mediation Center for the Americas (CAMCA). As for WTF, LOL and the rest—never.

Good newsletters don’t make people mad

While we’re on the subject of email newsletters, a few cardinal rules:

  1. Keep email addresses private. Use Bcc: instead of listing readers in the To: field, or risk the wrath of the indecently exposed.
  2. Don’t subscribe anyone without permission. It’s fine to purchase or use existing lists to invite people to subscribe, but unforgivably rude to opt them in.
  3. Check the damn links.  They should work smoothly, without surprises (like huge pdfs that crash people’s computers).
  4. Don’t call it a newsletter if it’s an ad.  I don’t mind promotions if they offer real value. But if the subject line says, “Ten ways to get a bargain on your next vacation,” I’d better not have to buy a book to find out what they are.

Newsletters that stand out in a crowd

Among the dozens of email newsletters competing for my newsletters are like flamingosattention, three stand out. One has spoilers for my favorite TV show; the second lists last-minute airfare deals; the third contains journal-style observations on the author’s life with her differently abled child.

From this unofficial sampling, I’ve derived three reasons that people read newsletters:

  • They provide information of immediate personal interest
  • They have real value (saving money) or fantasy value  (helping me visualize the ideal  vacation, job, house etc.)
  • They are beautifully written, with a compelling narrative

Does your newsletter fall into one of these categories? If not, why would people read it?

It was blown by you

I recently saw this line in a human resources handbook: “A training session on employee harrassment is required to be attended by all staff.” Leaving aside the fact that the company is training its employees to harass each other, this is a nice example of misuse of the passive voice.

As the term suggests, “passive voice” means that something was done to something else. The road was crossed by the chicken. Short people are discriminated against. I am being screwed. Most of us grew to love this construction in high school, when we were too lazy or nervous to commit to precise statements. “It is argued that Mark Twain was the most revolutionary writer of his day” keeps things nice and vague—it’s not even clear if the writer agrees.

Unfortunately, laziness and fear of commitment don’t serve us well in the business world. I can think of only two instances where passive voice is appropriate: to emphasize an object  (The baby was left on the doorstep) or to wiggle out of taking the blame (Errors were numerous in the last newsletter).

Don’t pet my peeve

I googled “pet peeves” and got 1.2 million results. That’s a lot of peeves. Merriam-Webster traces the term back to “pevish” (Middle English, spiteful; first use circa 1530), while the Oxford English Dictionary links it to “perverse.” Either way, I think we can agree that it’s overused.

Other candidates for retirement:

  • At the end of the day
  • Change agent
  • Leading (or, God forbid, bleeding) edge
  • No-brainer
  • Open the kimono
  • Paradigm shift
  • Proven track record
  • Push the envelope
  • Ramp up
  • Results-oriented
  • Win-win

Which terms set your teeth on edge?

Words to avoid

Desk side. Also deskside, desk-side. If you want to come to my office, just say so.
Impact. Overused in general, unacceptable when “verbed.”
Irregardless. Non-word combination of “irrespective” and “regardless.”
Literally, in the non-literal sense. “She literally exploded with excitement.”
Optics, unless you are an opthamologist.
X and myself, e.g. “My colleague and myself are delighted to be here.” “I” or “me” is nearly always correct instead.

Which words would you like to banish from business writing?

Bad email etiquette

These aren’t necessarily errors, but they’re bound to annoy recipients just the same.

  1. Misuse of subject line. Don’t leave this blank, and don’t waste it on vague descriptors like “Marketing team update.” Instead, include compelling details in the subject heading. “Three volunteers needed for tomorrow’s CNN interview,” not “We’re  going to be on CNN!”
  2. Slow lead-ins. These vary from the personal (“Hope the holidays are treating you well”) to the overly detailed (“Rachel and I were talking on the plane yesterday, and we realized that…”). Business emails should start with a clear statement of purpose.
  3. Missing pieces. Attach your attachments, and don’t forget to include email and telephone contact information.
  4. Unnecessary responses. Do you really need a whole new email to say “you’re welcome?” As for emoticons—just no.

One-minute book review: Made to Stick

There are a lot of great books on business writing. In case you’re too busy making a living to read them all, I will occasionally offer one-minute summaries of work by well-known authors.

Today, Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.  Expanding on Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, the authors offer six concepts that will raise your communications above the pack: 1. State it simply. 2. Use concrete examples. 3. Establish yourself as a trustworthy source. 4. Appeal to your audience’s needs. 5. Destroy  preconceived notions.  6. Tell a story.

I’d encourage you to stick with the first four in everyday communications—you can splash out with the last two when you pitch something. If you have time for the book, it’s an entertaining read.