Why wouldn’t you want to be clear?

The obvious answer is – if you want to mislead. A fascinating study published in the US Journal of Language and Social Psychology suggests that when scientists’ research turns out to be fraudulent, the language is often a giveaway.

Two researchers at Stanford University, California, studied more than 250 scientific papers that had been found to be using fraudulent data. They then compared the style of writing with that used in the same number of papers that were sound. They found that:

"fraudulent papers were written with significantly higher levels of linguistic obfuscation, including lower readability and higher rates of jargon."

In business, unclear writing is also revealing. It suggests a lack of confidence. Studies of the language used in annual reports, including one we at Clarity carried out some years ago, show that companies that are successful tend to write annual reports that are shorter and clearer than those not doing so well.

Of course, a lot of unclear writing is not meant to mislead or cover up. It’s just that the writer hasn’t put in the work needed to make it clear. And it is hard work. But if you don’t do it, there may be a price to pay: your reputation may suffer. Readers may lose confidence in you and your organisation.

There’s more on this in an article called Research shows connection between content clarity and business credibility at Precision Content.

Could Dickens help your business writing?

At the end of our Clarity training courses we give out a list of recommended reading. The idea is that people’s writing is influenced by what they read and that a dose of good fiction may counteract the corporate drivel that they are inundated with at work.

I’m thinking of adding Dickens’ novels to our list. But how, you may be wondering, could I possibly recommend a Victorian writer so often accused of long-windedness and sentimentality? The quality in Dickens that could be helpful is his vivid description of people and places.

The problem with so much business writing is its imprecision, its vagueness. It deals in processes and policies, and uses abstract nouns with other words piled in front of them as descriptors. For example, “the talent and development agenda” and “pragmatic effective learning and development solutions”.

Dickens wrote stories about individuals and places that we can visualise. We can hear them speak. We can almost smell them. That’s the way to communicate ideas – by creating pictures in the reader’s mind, by writing as far as possible about real people doing things. I think reading a bit of Dickens could help.

Time magazine is running a series of blog posts on why read Dickens in advance of the bicentenary of his birth on 7th February 2012.