Writing tips and ideas blog

Call out the obfuscators

Our language is being abused by politicians, business leaders, bureaucrats and others, and we should challenge them. In the current profusion of information, particularly on social media, we are liable to be confused and deceived, at least for a time.

This conspiracy of obfuscation is dangerous. However, it is unlikely to win in the end because it often doesn’t work. And some of us will not let the obfuscators get away with it.

This is a summary of an article published by Renegade, a website for people who want to think differently. Read the full article.

How to make your readers believe you

Be yourself. It is easier said than done, especially in a corporate environment.

It’s essential for writers to feel able to be themselves. And most people – often under pressure to conform to some corporate ethos, real or imagined – find this extraordinarily difficult.

Some have challenged convention: politicians such as Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. Although it may not be so easy in the business world, Warren Buffett has done it for decades, and Michael O’Leary of Ryanair is one of the few chief executives who has repeatedly challenged convention, while making himself unassailable by the sheer scale of his success.

Most people long to be themselves. They just need to be given permission to do so. When they are, their writing improves and organisations function better.

Read a fuller version of this post on LinkedIn.

To help your staff write more effective reports or documents, contact us and book a free 30-minute assessment.

The real value of LinkedIn

Microsoft has just made one of the boldest moves in its history by spending more than $26 billion on LinkedIn. The acquisition means Microsoft can embed LinkedIn with Skype, its email system and other Microsoft enterprise products so that, in the words of one Silicon Valley expert, it will be able “to recreate the connective tissue for enterprises”.

But I think Microsoft has bought something far more precious than what some commentators patronisingly call a social network for people looking for a job. LinkedIn is a content company. Microsoft has bought one of the world’s most influential, specialised, highly read, constantly updated digital media companies around. And, unlike some, I don’t think it has wasted its money.

I like it for the content. In one morning I read a fascinating statistical analysis by one of Britain’s top economists, Mark Gregory, of why the top tier of British soccer is destined for a prolonged period of upsets as the also-rans catch up on the powerful clique that used to win everything. I learned from one of the most senior executives at pharmaceutical giant GSK, Eric Dube, how corporate leaders can transform their skills between America, Japan and the UK. And I was sent a piece from Henry Blodget, the CEO of Business Insider, about why the slump in wages means it’s time for a “better capitalism”.

Yes, I was also told that Lucinda has a new job, somebody I once met “likes” a goofy video and also that a mysterious, unnamed figure from the market research industry has been looking at my profile. But those bits are fluff. The real value of the site is two-fold.

First, as a publishing platform in which executives can expand their networks, their influence and their opportunities for a better-paid job by providing original content. And second, as a relationship management tool, the content of which Microsoft will be able to use for cross-marketing purposes.

Some don’t get it. A journalist on the Daily Telegraph opined that while LinkedIn is a “fact of life” it’s also the “dull cousin” of Facebook, “tolerated rather than loved and forgotten once we leave the office”. His assessment is woefully inaccurate. Like all the best digital media companies, LinkedIn has pivoted smartly to ensure that its original raison d’etre – a job-seeking social networking site – has morphed into something far more powerful.

After pornography, gambling and shopping, content is the most valuable service internet companies provide. What LinkedIn does is produce content that people actually want to read and, who knows, may actually want to pay for.

You can read a longer version of this post on Forbes’ blog.

How to give feedback on someone else’s writing

Helpful criticism is one of the best ways of improving someone’s writing, but how to be critical without offending? The answer for some is not to give feedback at all, which is a lost opportunity for the writer.

We all tend to feel that our writing represents us and are easily wounded by someone taking issue with what we’ve written. We are likely to react defensively and then we don’t listen. However, there are ways of giving feedback that are not merely accepted but welcomed.

You can be critical of someone’s writing as long as you are seen to be on their side – wanting to help them get their point across, rather than simply finding fault. Any criticism should be balanced by an equal amount of support.

The key is to be factual, not judgmental. So if you say “I had to read that sentence three times before I knew what you meant” or “I found those long paragraphs a bit daunting”, you are stating facts. Instead of “That’s the wrong word”, you can say “I was confused by that word”. Again you’re stating a fact and you can go on to ask the writer how they might put it differently. They will often come up with something much better.

As writers, we should welcome criticism. Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant has a useful article on how to handle it.

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.

Wogan’s words

Tributes to the much-loved broadcaster, Terry Wogan, speak of his ability to communicate with millions as if they were his friends. Many also mention his skilful use of the English language.

When the BBC was taken to task some years ago for failing to police its presenters’ and reporters’ use of English, the campaigners made an exception for Wogan.

An obituary in the Telegraph remarked that Wogan, as an enthusiastic reader of PG Wodehouse, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, could lay claim to a certain erudition. He himself said he was a bit lazy, but according to another newspaper, he just didn’t let on how clever he really was.

He came up with some wonderful phrases, but in my view a large part of his secret was that he mostly used simple, everyday words. A computer analysis of the language used by successful communicators, including Terry Wogan, found that they all used a high proportion of simple words that everyone would understand.

Read and enjoy the BBC’s page called Sir Terry Wogan in his own words.

Ulysses with an iPad

I am a third of the way through Ulysses, James Joyce’s famously unreadable and controversial work of literary genius, and I have made a crucial discovery. An iPad or similar device is an almost indispensable aid to enjoying a work as rich and allusion-packed as this.

I never like to read the introduction to a serious book until I am well into the text. I want to read it fresh, let it work its magic, then find out more later. I started to do this with Ulysses, ploughing through nearly 200 dense, funny, poetic, often incoherent pages, frequently losing the thread, until I weakened and read the introduction (by Cedric Watts in my Wordsworth Classics edition).

Sure enough, it has told me too much of the plot for my liking, but its mention of the “electronic web” opened my eyes.

Going back to the first page of Ulysses, I googled “Buck Mulligan” and was suddenly able to appreciate the opening scene’s extraordinary fusion of Greek myth and Catholic ritual. I am learning about literature and civilization while enjoying a brilliantly frank and witty exploration of the lives of ordinary people.

Ulysses with an iPad – not what Joyce had in mind when he wrote his monumental modernist work in 1922, but great fun, which I would recommend to anyone.

[Editor’s note: Why do we have a post about reading on a blog about writing? Because if you want to write well, you need to read well. We always include a list of recommended reading in our training courses.]

Customer calling – is anybody listening?

I tried a new way of getting help from my energy supplier this week, but ran into familiar hassles. I wanted to move from a standard tariff to a fixed tariff. Not so difficult, surely? I thought I’d try having a webchat. I found it a touch irritating that every other sentence was answered with “that’s fantastic, Fiona!” but a bigger problem lay ahead.

Absolutely no one could grasp the fact that my house used to go by a different address. It is still the same house, but its identity has changed. My chatmate gave up, and passed the buck. “I suggest you call customer services and explain your problem Fiona.” Could they call me, perhaps? “No Fiona I’m afraid not, they cannot make outbound calls.” OK, so the webchat was a waste of time. I continued my quest via email. Emails punctuated with “good news!” and the inevitable “bear with me” just went round in circles as the query was passed from assistant to assistant, with each new agent asking questions that had been answered earlier in the email trail. If the webchat was purgatory, the emails were surely customer-service hell.

Where’s the Customer Relations?

It grated because, in a previous life as a customer service agent, I enjoyed dealing with unusual queries, which I usually found myself able to solve. So why couldn’t anyone think outside the fusebox, and try to work with me, the customer? Eventually someone did have a brainwave (albeit to gain information I had already given) and the mystery address was ascertained. Now we can all move on and choose a better value tariff. Hooray! But why make it so hard for us?

It happens like this all the time. A while ago, when a package was lost (delivered to the wrong address, and then signed for) the courier, credit-card company and merchant all refused to accept responsibility. I didn’t get my package, or a refund, or an apology from anyone.

I’ve also met the webchat robot before. I once tried to cancel a subscription continued in error. Almost everything I typed was met with “that’s great!” even when I said things like, “Don’t you understand? This subscription should have been cancelled.”

Good complaint handling makes all the difference

If organisations did their research, they would discover that the three things that matter most to customers are that someone listens to their complaint, that someone takes responsibility, and that they make a genuine effort to solve the problem. Most of us aren’t after money.

Based on my recent experiences, I can give energy suppliers and other organisations a few simple tips:

1. Listen. Far too many customer-service agents seem only to read from scripts, and simply can’t give an honest reaction to a genuine query.

2. Don’t allow more than one agent to share an email account; this just causes duplication and frustration for the customer.

3. Don’t put people on the job whose English isn’t good enough. Some of our problems are hard enough to explain anyway.

4. Don’t use stock phrases. We can smell them a mile off, and we know they have nothing to do with our complaint.

If you value your corporate reputation, you can’t afford to make these elementary errors. We customers will tweet about you, we will tell our friends, we will tell the regulators; and one day we will destroy you.

Listen to us. And if you want to learn to use customer-friendly language, try talking to my colleagues at Clarity.

The truth about complaint handling

Can energy companies really improve their complaint handling? Currently, customers typically have to contact their supplier six times before their issue can be resolved. With Ofgem breathing down their necks, Energy UK, which represents the industry, insists:

“Handling complaints well is a must. Suppliers are committed to improving and a programme of change is under way.”

I wonder. Having worked with complaint handlers at many different organisations, including one energy company, I can reveal where the main problem lies. It’s not with the complaint handlers, overwhelmingly conscientious and decent people who will do the right thing nine times out of ten, given a chance.

The problems start at the top. Company bosses find it almost impossible to empathise with their customers. This is hardly surprising, given their preoccupation with brand identity, reputation management and, of course, the bottom line: all of which they view from a corporate perspective.

But reputation management begins with the understanding that your reputation is not in your hands; it is in your customers’ hands. So listen to those customers, understand their complaints, work out what you can do that might satisfy them, and respond accordingly.

Very few organisations do this. Instead, they establish complaints procedures, risk management policies, and work out what to do from there. Aggrieved customers are then told about policies and procedures that have nothing to do with their complaint. I recently worked with a bank where the unfortunate complaint handlers were so weighed down with cut-and-paste material of this kind that they would waffle for six or seven paragraphs before telling the customer whether they had upheld or rejected their complaint.

A word to the bosses, then. Ditch the corporate claptrap. Don’t let your lawyers hobble you with caveats. Start with the customer, and give your complaint handlers the training and support to do the job they are longing to do.

Learning from a writing master

Skewering the phoney and pretentious is one of the great pleasures of life. It doesn’t happen often enough. Thank goodness for the likes of Richard Ford, the American novelist, who sets much of his work in New Jersey, but writes about people who are recognisable anywhere.

I just read this passage from The Lay of the Land (the third in his Frank Bascombe trilogy. Rumour has it a fourth in the series is to be published this autumn), in which Frank is describing his daughter’s new boyfriend:

“Thom teaches equestrian therapy to Down’s syndrome kids at a ‘pretty famous holistic center’… He read Sanskrit, history of science and genocide studies, swam or rowed till books got in the way; born abroad of mixed parentage, he has a deep honeyed voice that seems made of expensive felt; he plays a medieval stringed instrument, of which there are only ten in existence; has mastered Go, was once married to a Chilean woman and has a teenage child in Montreal he’s deeply committed to but rarely sees. Worked in Ghana for the Friends Service, taught in experimental schools (not Montessori), built his own ketch and sailed it to Brittany, wears one-of-a-kind Persian sandals, a copper anklet, black silk singlets suggesting a full-body tan, sage-colored desert shorts revealing a shark-bite on his inner thigh from who-knows-what ocean, and always smells like a fine wood-working shop.”

Enough. Perhaps Ford is overdoing it a little, but I laughed aloud in recognition, although of course I have never met anyone like that. The point is that the observation is so acute, the accumulation of detail so telling, that you, the reader, feel that you know this man – and know him to be a snake.

If you want to write well, read Richard Ford and learn a trick of two from a master.