I recently stumbled across the following paragraph (edited to protect the guilty) on a corporate website. It’s 40 words; can you rewrite it to 20 or less?
“We firmly believe that transparency and ongoing partnerships are key drivers toward finding long-term, sustainable solutions to global challenges. To this end, we maintain relationships with key stakeholders including government officials, politicians, regulatory authorities, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.”
I’ve started collecting these. Would love to hear yours.
- Expert. Someone from out of town.
- Guru (also rockstar, ninja, wizard). Advisor with no real credentials.
- Convergence. We posted the article on Facebook and linked the Facebook page to Twitter.
- Crowdsourced. Vetted by our friends, and maybe the people we ride the train with.
- Human business. Two-year-olds do this on the potty.
Lily Tomlin once said, “I worry that the person who thought up Muzak may be thinking up something else.” I’m willing to bet they’re the force behind the following “innovations” on business websites:
- Auto-start music or video. Nothing makes me hit the back key quicker than a video starting up—sound and all—as soon as I land on a page. The same goes for soundtracks.
- Splash intro pages. Other than giving the designer a place to get his ya-yas out, what purpose do these serve?
- Links that lead to .pdf files. Even if I cared about your annual report, my netbook would take ten minutes to load it.
- Under construction pages. Either hide the page or finish constructing it. If you don’t have time to write it yourself, call me (973.444.4202).
- Forms that re-set. Don’t make me start over because I’ve left something out, or I will seek out your competition just to annoy you.
- Crappy “About Us” descriptions. This section is the Web equivalent of speed dating—you have 15 seconds to make me love you. If you can’t say something interesting, don’t bother.
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:
- Spell out numbers under 11, centuries (e.g. the nineteenth) and decades (the Eighties).
- 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.”
- For numbers over 1 million, use a numeral plus a word. “More than 830 million people speak Mandarin.”
- Write out the word “percent” in formal business documents and on the web. Avoid symbols in general: No. 1 is better than #1.
- Proper names should be consistent with the entity’s preferred usage: 3M, Big Ten, 50 Cent.
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
Among the dozens of email newsletters competing for my attention, 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?
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
- Open the kimono
- Paradigm shift
- Proven track record
- Push the envelope
- Ramp up
Which terms set your teeth on edge?
These aren’t necessarily errors, but they’re bound to annoy recipients just the same.
- 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!”
- 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.
- Missing pieces. Attach your attachments, and don’t forget to include email and telephone contact information.
- Unnecessary responses. Do you really need a whole new email to say “you’re welcome?” As for emoticons—just no.
Ask someone to review your work before you send. This rule applies to every document–from a two-sentence email to a book-length manuscript–that will be seen by someone you hope to impress.
I was once asked to provide a caption for a photograph of a Parisian river scene. Unfortunately, I made a tiny error; a single letter was incorrect. The caption read: “After a busy day of sightseeing, there’s nothing more relaxing than a quiet wank by the Seine.”
It would have taken five seconds to have someone review that little gem. Instead, I got three years of ridicule.