The Way We Write Needs to Change. Now.

As promised, in my list of “things that have me all worked up,” here is Thing #2: Let’s change how we write as an industry. As I was mulling this over, looking for ideas, inspiration, etc, the heavens opened and delivered me this from Bad Pitch, quoting Saul Hansell at the NYTimes. I love this example because a) we’ve all pitched Saul at one time or another and b) we are all guilty of this kind of writing at one time or another.)

*** "My biggest problem with pitches is that at least half the ones I get, I can't understand what the company does or what the pitch is about. Often, the pitch is so wound up trying to define some sort of cute trend the company fits into that they don't actually give the who-what-where-when. And too many pitches use such obscure jargon, that they are impenetrable.

Allow me to vent on this for one second, with the first paragraph of a pitch I got yesterday:

"Hope you're well. I'd like to introduce you to xxxx, a new, place-based out-of-home digital network that delivers relevant, localized media within the rhythm of consumers' daily rituals, like afternoon coffee or sandwiches at lunch." It turns out that the company puts video billboards in delis. My hope is that if people realize a reporter is much more likely to search for "video billboard" than "place-based out-of-home digital network" this may be an incentive for PR people to brush up on their English a bit." ***

Yes, my brother.

Whenever I try to root out a bad habit, I go into a Zen-like observation mode. So let’s think about this… why do we write this way? Sometimes we are meeting our clients’ need to be appear larger than life. In other cases, it’s the PR people who are to blame, having been trained to take a sow’s ear and make a Chanel purse out of it. Either way, it’s not working, and certainly not impressing the likes of Saul Hansell. Here’s how we can improve:

1. Channel the Greats. Need some examples of clear, compelling, energizing writing? Look no further than Seth Godin, Michael Pollan or Thomas Friedman. Notice that they still manage to inspire us and pique our curiosity without adding baroque adornment to every sentence. Here’s a trick I like to use: Next time you are about to dive into a press release or speaking abstract, dive FIRST into a Seth Godin posting, and write from his voice for a paragraph or two. It may not end up being the final product, but it’s a great exercise for getting into a good place for good writing.

2. Bring Your Clients Along for the Ride. Let’s start talking to our clients about this revolution in writing. We can show them Saul’s comments, and point to examples of good/bad writing. Let’s especially commit to doing this if we are in the midst of a messaging or positioning initiative. These workshops are often the worst offenders. Need an example?. Let’s have our clients playfully police us on our ability to be succinct, clear and compelling. They’ll love it.

3. Practice in Email. The next time we write an email, let’s go back and boil it down. Let’s see if we can get our respective messages to three sentences. Maybe something like a) information b) what to do as a result of having this info and c) when we need it by. If it feels curt and unfriendly, add personality to it, but let’s not sacrifice simplicity.

4. Go Back to the Basics. Here is a link to a good blog posting about writing clearly. None of this should be news to any of us, but it’s a good reminder. Especially the part about the active vs. passive voice.

5. Spread the Gospel. Let’s talk to each other about this and share examples of what’s working.

What do you think?