Strunk and White still lead the way
Few subjects in business could benefit more from the rigorous study, application of common sense and a humanistic touch than communications. In a certain way, all business problems are communications problems, because as humans we have to comprehend or elucidate how and what to do in order for us to succeed in business. Surely I don’t make a radical assertion, for everyone knows miscommunications undermine more leaders, organizations and even industries, in honest dealings, than almost anything else.
Within business communications, writing (other than resume writing) has often received less attention than other forms of communication: marketing, speechmaking, interpersonal dialogue or non-verbal communication. Clear and effective communication – in all these dimensions – undoubtedly makes a difference. Writing remains the basic way to begin any business communiqué and serves as the first step in building nearly every argument. Even heavy numbers-crunching work requires translation into a recommendation, and that often happens in writing.
No doubt nearly all of us can improve our writing, making it more clear, cogent and forceful. And no doubt nearly all of us can improve by reading The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White.
The release of the 50th-anniversary edition (2009) offers an excellent opportunity to examine our writing with a view to objective self-criticism. We’re able to review this sage, slim volume in the spirit of determined effort to improve.
Perusing The Elements of Style, especially Chapter IV, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” makes you think they wrote the book with business writing particularly in mind. Some of the choicest terms that Strunk and White have in their sights:
- Finalize, which they call ‘pompous, ambiguous.’
- Insightful, which ‘crops up merely to inflate the commonplace.’
- Interesting. As the saying goes, if you have to assert something as interesting, it probably isn’t.
- Meaningful: ‘a bankrupt’ word.
- -oriented, which they cast aside as a ‘pretentious device.’
- Thanking you in advance. This expression is silly, annoying and unprofessional.
Strunk and White have an almost scandalous point: under close scrutiny of their meaning, these terms are vacuous. They lack content. They have become filler in routine business conversations: add a ‘meaningful’ before ‘change’ and you suddenly appear inspired, analytical and philosophical.
Those readers who hail from the consulting industry will reflect on the many times you have heard, and perhaps have uttered, these words. Indeed, newbie consultants keenly study when their elders utilize these terms and seek to become as masterful in dropping an ‘-ize.’
Yes, poor writing and grammar litter every corner of the business world. But these only reveal a deeper problem: the lack of content, thought, logic and precision in business communications.
What can be done about this state of affairs? Unfortunately, on the whole, I doubt much. Can any remedy treat such poor writing skills and thinking on a mass scale? But we, as individual leaders, can reform writing in our own circles. The work at times will be tough, but we must demand clearer thinking, tighter argumentation, better use of evidence and more forceful language.
Why do we care? If the business world has decided upon a course of slovenly intellectual and communication habits, why should we do it differently? Taking the higher ground will, over time, prove to be a competitive advantage. But I have another reason – logical thinking, heated discourse and clearer writing make life more engaging. They grab us, they force us to strive for great efforts and they disallow mediocrity – in business and in life.
Originally published November 2, 2009. Updated April 2022.
(Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Image created by Midjourney.