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11 Jan. 2017 | Comments (0)

A hidden source of friction is slowing your company down. Your workers are complicit in it. So is your management. And it’s driving everybody nuts.

It’s bad business writing.

I surveyed 547 businesspeople in the first three months of this year. I looked specifically at people who write at least two hours per week in addition to email. They told me that they spend an average of 25.5 hours per week reading for work. (About a third of that is email.)

And 81% of them agree that poorly written material wastes a lot of their time. A majority say that what they read is frequently ineffective because it’s too long, poorly organized, unclear, filled with jargon, and imprecise.

Entry-level employees get little training in how to write in a brief, clear, and incisive way. Instead, they’re immersed in first-draft emails from their managers, poorly edited reports, and jargon-filled employee manuals. Their own flabby writing habits fit right in. And the whole organization drowns in productivity-draining blather.


Vague writing dilutes leadership. Yahoo has suffered from dithering management focus for a decade. Now CEO Marissa Mayer has agreed to sell it to Verizon. Here’s a passage from her recent email to staff on that occasion: “…our incredibly loyal and dedicated employee base has stepped up to every challenge along the way….The teams here have not only built incredible products and technologies, but have built Yahoo into one of the most iconic, and universally well-liked companies in the world….I’m incredibly proud of everything that we’ve achieved, and I’m incredibly proud of our team. I love Yahoo, and I believe in all of you.”

That’s four uses of “incredible” or “incredibly” in a single paragraph. All that cheerleading reads like misdirection. It’s going to be challenging for Yahoo to continue to succeed as part of Verizon, and happy, vacuous language certainly won’t inspire the workers who haven’t quit yet. (The rest of the email is similarly vague.)

Contrast this to how Apple’s Tim Cook communicates — as in his clear, jargon-free defense of the company’s decision not to crack the encryption on a terrorist’s iPhone.

Clear leadership, expressed in writing, creates alignment and boosts productivity. For example, in writing email, managers from the CEO on down must set an example by communicating exactly what they want, clearly, in the subject line or title and the first two sentences of everything they write. The workers reading it will just skip to the key facts anyway, so lose the filler and don’t waste their time.

Do this right, and you’ll get a reputation for truth. Your workers won’t waste time on the Kremlinology of reading your intentions; they’ll get to work on accomplishing the goals you set out for them.

Clarity in marketing tells customers — and workers — that they can trust you. How do your marketers and PR people communicate? Do they put out press releases filled with industry jargon and meaningless superlatives?

When clarity and truth are core values for marketers, they can spend time trumpeting what works, rather than concealing what doesn’t. For example, here’s what Google writes about how it treats customers:

Focus on the user and all else will follow.

Since the beginning, we’ve focused on providing the best user experience possible. Whether we’re designing a new internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line.

Every customer can understand that, and it rings true. It inspires workers as well. So marketers and the rest of the company can move forward in a united and productive way.

Fuzzy writing allows fuzzy thinking. Clear writing uses well-organized, active-voice sentences to explain what is happening, what ought to happen, and what people need to do. Conversely, inexact and passive language reflects gaps in thinking.

A great example is the report that the UMass Donahue Institute published about the economics of hosting the 2024 Olympics in Boston. Its passive-voice analysis hid who was responsible for important parts of the bid, with sentences like these:

[These] are issues that will need to be closely monitored in order to ensure the public sector is protected from extensive financial commitments.

To date, using insurance to protect a host city from cost overruns has not been used extensively.

Questions like who would monitor expenses and who would secure hypothetical insurance loomed over the bid. In the end, these uncertainties caused the citizens and political leaders of Boston to reject an Olympic bid.

Requiring clear, direct, active language has two benefits. It forces writers to think through what they really mean and the arguments they can use to support it. And it makes smart people stand out. If you prize clarity, the clear thinkers will rise to the top.

A culture of clear writing makes managers more productive. It means that the material that ends up on your desk will be clearer too. Senior managers can waste time rooting through their subordinates’ fuzzy writing, or they can spend effort changing the culture to one that prizes brevity, clarity, and directness. That’s worth the effort, because it means everyone in the organization — especially management — will end up more productive.

It’s time to clear all the crap out of your inboxes and make those 25.5 hours per week more efficient. It’s time to commit to a culture of clarity. It could make a big difference in how smoothly your business runs — and it could make your day a lot less annoying.


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 09/09/2016.

View our complete listing of Talent Management blogs.

  • About the Author:Josh Bernoff

    Josh Bernoff

     Josh Bernoff is the author of the new book Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean and the coauthor of three business strategy books, including the bestsell…

    Full Bio | More from Josh Bernoff


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