Clear, concise writing gets read

Here’s a true story.

A good friend of ours runs a small marketing consultancy.

A little while back, his firm was pitching against several much larger rivals for a contract to help launch a new courier service.

As the days went by, the courier company shortened the shortlist and then shortened it again. Eventually, the list was down to just two firms: our friend’s firm and one other.

The MD of the courier company phoned our friend. ‘I’d like to give you the business,’ he said. ‘But your Terms of Trade document is eight pages of what looks like dense legalese.’

Our friend tried to reassure him that it was pretty standard stuff.

‘It may be,’ the courier company boss said. ‘But I’m not going to sign something that I haven’t read. And I have better things to do with my time than to try to make sense of your guff. So here’s what I want you to do. Send me your terms, in plain English, on one side of an A4 sheet. If I understand them, and they’re not unreasonable, the contract’s yours.’

So our friend sat down and wrote a one-page, plain English version of the eight-page document. Then he showed it to the lawyer who had written the long version.

‘Does this one-pager say the same as the other one?’ he asked.

‘Well … yes,’ the lawyer said cautiously. ‘But obviously not in as much detail.’

‘But does it say the same thing?’ our friend asked.

‘It’s not the way a lawyer would write it,’ the lawyer said.

Our friend took a deep breath. ‘But does it say the same thing?’ he asked for a third time.

The lawyer read through the one-pager yet again. ‘Yes,’ he said.

An hour or so later, our friend personally handed the document to the boss of the courier company – who read it on the spot.

‘Fine,’ he said. And the two men shook hands on the biggest contract the small consultancy had ever won.

The reality of most business writing is that the reader is pressed for time. This is true of colleagues. It’s true of customers. And it’s true of suppliers. Whether people have the time and inclination to read what you write will largely depend on how well you write it.

If you write good clear prose, it stands a very good chance of getting read and understood. If you write dense obfuscatory prose, your intended reader will probably find something better to do with their time.

It really is that simple. – Jack Scrivano

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