Practicing any profession invariably requires proficiency in certain skills. Engineers and accountants must be comfortable working with numbers, athletes must have strong motor skills, and chefs must have a well-developed and discerning sense of taste. Marketers must know how to write well. It is a non-negotiable requirement of the profession, in my opinion.
In this article, we will explore why facility with words is essential to success in marketing (and to success in business, in general), what good writing looks like, and how to acquire this skill. We’ll also explore the sources of most bad writing today, such as verbosity, jargon, and lack of empathy.
The content of this post is drawn from a new book, “The Joy of Propaganda: The How and Why of Public Relations and Marketing.” It’s a “how-to” book that combines practical advice with a look into the invisible forces that drive marketing’s visible results – the psychological, philosophical, and cultural underpinnings of all marketing. Readers will find a good mixture of “how” and “why,” with enough “how” to get things done and enough “why” to keep them interested.
Writing Is the Most Important Business Skill
Business is fundamentally about convincing people to do things — such as buying your product, giving you a good online review, attending events, and other activities — and you can’t make these things happen if you can’t communicate well.
Communication takes many forms, such as video, speaking, phone calls, texting, email, signage, advertising, blogging, publicity, and others. However, doing any of these well requires writing skills.
Why? Because good writing is fundamentally good thinking. Writing forces you to organize your thoughts, making you more likely to be understood.
Of course, proficient writing is more than logic in action. It also must touch the reader, listener, or viewer emotionally. Otherwise, it won’t connect. It won’t lead to the behavior you are seeking to create.
What makes a good writer? I suggest it is these things:
It is impossible to write well without thinking clearly. You must understand what you want to say and be able to explain it. And I’m not talking about intelligence. A dull person can write better than a brilliant one if she clearly understands what she wants to communicate and sticks to it without wandering off into irrelevancy. In fact, smart people are sometimes poor writers because their need to show off can muddy the message. (See “Economy” below.)
Knowing the rules
The best writers regularly break the rules of grammar, but only after they’ve learned them to the point where they are second nature. It is like the difference between a masterful and a hack painter of abstract art: the master first learned how to paint representational art. This firm foundation gives his abstract work a balance and harmony that the hack’s will never possess. Picasso said he had to first learn to paint like Raphael before he could paint like a child.
To learn the rules of writing, read Elements of Style by Strunk & White. The entire book is available for free online.
Good reading habits
Knowing how to spell and grammar rules does not make you a writer. You must read talented writers to know what skillful writing looks like. And read a variety of writers, so it’s less likely you’ll parrot someone’s style. Reading widely will also fill your brain with information you can use in your writing. So read outstanding literature, of course, but also about history, biography, science, politics, art, technology, and more.
Being curious leads you to read widely and also to carefully observe the world around you, both the animate and inanimate worlds, and to ask questions and seek out people who know things you don’t know. Be a lifelong learner and you will continually grow the cognitive and emotional capacity you need to be a capable writer — because you’ll learn what moves people to act.
As the saying goes, no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. A lack of empathy for the reader is to blame for most bad writing. It leads to pompous drivel. To be an effective writer, you must get outside of yourself and get inside the heads and hearts of others. This will allow you to do two important things: One, say something interesting because you are able to juxtapose the thoughts of others with your own thoughts — and putting together things in novel ways is the foundation of creativity. Two, you’re able to tap into the emotional intelligence that fuels expert writing.
It takes effort to be succinct, but your reader will appreciate it. Never use three words when one will do. Don’t say the same thing twice in a different way. Don’t write a preamble before getting to your point.
Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Use more precise nouns or verbs instead. Rather than saying someone cheerfully and quickly accomplished a task, say he accomplished it with alacrity. Don’t say someone lightly knocked on the door. Say she tapped on the door.
Unless there is a reason not to, stick to simple Anglo-Saxon words. English is an amalgamation of words from many languages, especially Anglo-Saxon (spoken by the Germanic tribes who invaded England when the Romans left), Norman French (thanks to the Norman Invasion in 1066), and Latin (the language of the Church). So, in many cases, we have three ways of saying the same thing, such as “ask” (Anglo-Saxon), “question” (Norman French), and “interrogate (Latin), or “goodness,” “virtue” and “probity,” or “rise,” “mount” and “ascend.” Since good writing is clear writing, it’s often wise to rely on the foundation of our language, Anglo-Saxon words. (Of course, there are instances when “probity” is the right choice, but choose pretentious words carefully or risk being ridiculous.)
And when you’ve said what you want to say, stop. Read Hemingway — especially his early books — for examples of economical writing at its best.
Lack of jargon
Jargon is a formulaic way of stating pre-chewed ideas. It’s used by people who can’t digest original concepts. It makes you look stupid. It annoys people. It is a cheap substitute for thinking. It is ugly. Avoid it at all costs.
Why Business Jargon Steals Your Soul
I detest jargon at a visceral level. I not only understand how much jargon sabotages our communication, but I feel how ugly it is and how it stultifies the soul. It does not deserve to live.
Why do I loathe jargon so? Let me count the ways…
People can’t understand you
By definition, and at its best, jargon is a specialized language used to communicate quickly and accurately among a group of people who have something in common, such as an occupation, a hobby, or a religion. For example, “consubstantial” is a useful piece of jargon among Catholics, for it quickly and completely (thus elegantly) communicates a quite complex, even mystical formulation of the Christian Trinity. One word takes the place of thousands, but only because those in the group have invested their time learning about the ideas it communicates. Within the group, it is efficient — the highest compliment for any communication.
However, throw around “consubstantial” in casual conversation, and you’ll get blank stares if not outright derision. It means nothing to those who aren’t in the club. The same applies to business jargon, whether it be industry specific or — the worst — general management jargon. People simply will not understand what you are saying. And they will stop listening — if they ever started, which is doubtful.
You don’t understand yourself
Even worse, you probably don’t fully understand the jargon you use. Does anyone really know what “boil the ocean” means? Or “ideation?” Or, my favorite, “solutioneering?”
Often, jargon creeps into our language like curse words — it’s just something we pick up by being around the wrong people. In fact, watching someone use jargon in a business meeting or sales pitch is like watching a child curse for the first time. He doesn’t know what he is saying, but he’s seen grown-ups say it, which sounds powerful.
The next time someone says he wants to “solutioneer” a problem, ask him what he really means. He probably won’t have the slightest idea.
You don’t think
Often, jargon is a substitute for thinking — or, at least, original thinking. Business jargon speed dials thoughts that have been thought of many times before and have lost their luster.
For example, the first person who used the term “best practices” was probably describing his discovery — i.e., an original thought — that you could improve a process by closely watching what talented people do. The first genius who came up with the concept of “scalability” communicated a clear and exact concept because he had spent a lot of time studying how small enterprises become large ones.
These terms have now become shopworn tools that lazy people substitute for thinking. Have a problem? No problem, we’ll just survey best practices and develop synergistic, robust, and actionable steps that we’ll run up the flagpole for buy-in from all stakeholders. Then, we’ll take it offline to find the secret sauce that will enhance our scalability. No thinking required. The jargon does it for you. (Until you actually have to do something. Not just talk about it.)
It’s for followers, not leaders
Because jargon is largely about pre-chewed ideas, it’s used by people who can’t digest original concepts. Leaders come up with ideas that eventually get transformed into jargon when the ideas have lost their vitality.
So, if you want to be a leader, speak like one. Describe your thoughts accurately with precise language so that people clearly know what you have in mind. If you speak, write, and think this way, you will find it impossible to use business jargon, which is almost exclusively about communicating fuzzy concepts that will get a mediocre person through a meeting but lead nowhere.
It is simply ugly
I am viscerally disgusted by jargon on aesthetic grounds. As a writer, I think language is naturally beautiful. I like the way it sounds. I like the way it facilitates the flow of ideas and emotions. I like the way it makes us human.
Jargon is a chance on this beauty, primarily because it reeks of cheap pretensions. Why would someone say “utilize” instead of the good old Anglo-Saxon “use” if not because they think a three-syllable word sounds more refined than a one-syllable one? However, unless you have a good reason for “utilizing” instead of “using” (and such reasons do exist), you are pretending to have a sophistication you do not possess and are, thus, a fool. As the jargon goes, you are truly putting lipstick on a pig.
Like many evil practices, jargon promises easy access to wisdom, sophistication, and privilege (at least the appearance of such). In fact, it leads to weakness of mind and spirit and, ultimately, ignominy — or worse, irrelevance. If you wish to think clearly and lead confidently, avoid the siren song of jargon.
Why the World Needs English Majors
We live in a world shaped by the hard sciences, rewarding those who can shape matter to their bidding. It is largely a positivist world, where all that exists is energy and matter (not spirit), and all that matters is how not why.
What is an English major to do?
We are to make sense of it. Apple understands this. It doesn’t sell technology. It sells possibilities, novelty, wonder, discovery, mastery, and joy. That’s why Apple stores are always packed and why stores that emphasize only technology die. (Remember CompUSA? Circuit City?)
And that’s what smart marketers do. We breathe the myths of our culture into the machines of our age to give them meaning and vitality. Creating this emotional connection may be as important as creating the technology because it creates a desire for the technology.
And that’s why there will always be a place for English majors. Because we tell the stories that people are really buying when they buy a smartphone.
Is This as Good as It Gets?
Good writing is the foundation of good marketing — and good business, for that matter, or any successful endeavor requiring clear thinking based on evidence and intuition. This is because good writing is simply clear thinking made visible and thereby more easily manipulated and fashioned. That is, writing is thinking — in a way easily understood by others and thus translated into action.
We hope this makes you want to be a better writer. (As Jack would say.)