Business writer Josh Bernoff is a coach who helps individuals and organizations improve their writing. Bernoff’s latest book is called Writing Without Bullshit: Boost Your Career by Saying What You Mean. He also recently penned a Harvard Business Review article called Bad Writing is Destroying Your Company Productivity, which explained in detail the costs of bad writing for leaders and business organizations. I spoke with Bernoff recently.
Leddy: What are the costs and consequences of bad business writing?
Bernoff: About six percent of the average employee’s time is spent reading and trying to figure out what the heck the other person is attempting to get across. So if you look at that across all of the jobs in America, it’s a waste of $396 billion for the U.S. economy. Part of the reason is that the people who are the most highly compensated are the ones who read the most. Bad writing spreads inefficiency throughout your organization and that generally results in a lack of productivity.
Whether we’re talking about employee manuals that are unreadable, or emails from the boss that don’t get to the point until the ninth paragraph, people are wasting too much time reading bad business writing.
Leddy: What are some of the common indicators of bad business writing?
Bernoff: I surveyed over 500 people who are either consuming or producing business writing, and the number one problem is length, things are too long. Writers must get to the point quickly. In a world where people are reading everything on a screen, where their attention is easily diverted, you want headlines in the first few sentences to immediately get across what’s important. Another problem is “toxic prose”: excessive use of jargon, passive voice, and weasel words like “deeply” and “very” which reduce the amount of meaning.
Leddy: What are the factors that drive bad business writing?
Bernoff: First, people are so busy that they don’t take the time to go back and improve what they’ve written. Ironically, that’s what’s wasting their colleagues’ time and making everybody so busy. Second is fear. If writers have bad news, they want to equivocate and make excuses for what happened. That makes it harder for the reader. Last is training. The way students are taught to write is completely wrong for what’s effective in the business world. Having hired many entry- level writers out of college, I had to basically teach them to stop doing what they were trained to do, and learn to write effectively for business.