How do you stop other people turning your clear, crisp prose into turgid, buzzword-ridden nonsense? It’s something every writer working in corporate communications has to deal with.
I’ve already talked about how small tweaks to your editorial process can massively improve your end result. But office politics are also a factor when you have to include others in decisions about your business writing.
I’ve lost count of the number of times one of my courses on business writing has threatened to descend into a group therapy session on how “they just don’t respect our expertise”.
In my experience, good business writing comes out of strong relationships with people who respect your work. So here are a few things I’ve learned over the years about taking back power as a writer and selling yourself as the expert.
1. Negotiate business writing face to face
In my last post, Ten ways to stop that verbose exec from mangling your copy, I suggested discussing your work over the phone. Even better, why not print it out and head over to your collaborator’s desk?
One of the participants on a recent business English course I ran told me she always does this – and it has the benefit of helping her build great relationships with senior people.
Just think what getting your face known by the big wigs could do for your career as well as your copy.
2. Go to the boss if you can
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the higher up the corporate food chain they are, the less likely they are to muck about with your copy. Get the opinion of someone with more important things to do than play out a power game with someone from the back office (that’s investment banking-speak for the part of the firm that doesn’t lose, sorry make the money).
3. Pick your battles
If letting the small things go means you get a reputation for being on their side, then so be it. You want to be the ever-helpful expert they seek out, not the permanently exasperated pedant they make every effort to bypass.
4. Never say “I don’t understand” what you mean
Tell your wordy exec that you don’t understand what she means by “delivering a platform for enhanced talent management” and you’ve immediately put yourself on the back foot.
Why? Because I guarantee she’ll reply with: “Don’t worry, the people this is aimed at will know what I mean”.
In other words, “you’re not the expert”. What to do?
Try giving her a range of possible interpretations. So, by “delivering a platform for enhanced talent management”, does she mean launching a training programme, creating a piece of software or something else entirely?
When I do this, they invariably respond: “That’s not what I meant at all! But I see what you mean – it is ambiguous, isn’t it?”.
5. Fight fire with fire
They’ve hit you with “strategic alignment implementation” and “roadmapping initiatives around product ideation” and are refusing to budge. It’s time to return fire with some of your own big words.
In the past, I’ve used “tautology”, “hyperbole” and “concatenation of abstract nouns” (geddit?) to encourage a client to see me as the words expert.
The mother of all weapons in my writerly arsenal? “Syntax”.
“Syntax” is great because nobody quite knows what it means. I guarantee that if you say “I’ve not changed the meaning, just ironed out some syntactic irregularities” your verbose exec will not merely be impressed. She’ll be kittenish with gratitude and highly pleased with herself to be “leveraging the expertise” (as she would no doubt say it) of such a talented editor.
6. Ban the words “sign off” and “approval”
Asking for “approval” and “sign off” immediately puts you in a subservient role. But I can’t say it better than the gloriously funny Mark Ragan – check out his video, Quit calling fact-checking approvals!.
Does your corporate writing team struggle to produce copy that people want to read? Contact us on + 44 208 127 1477 to discuss running a business writing course at your company.