How to master business writing: 37signals

This post is the first in a series on how to master business writing. In the series, I’m going to introduce you to some companies that are characterized by their excellent writing. I’ll discuss what makes each company’s writing so good. And I’ll provide tools and techniques that you can use to create equally strong content.

The company: 37signals

The folks at 37signals are notoriously contrarian. They pride themselves on promoting unpopular, unlikely, unusual ideas that ignore or blatantly contradict the received wisdom. For example, they discourage entrepreneurs from seeking venture capital, pushing them to bootstrap their companies instead. And they’ve directly confronted Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who recently and infamously decided to prohibit remote work.

But behind these contrarian positions—and behind the blog and two books from which they proclaim them—lies an even less popular and more contrarian strategy: good writing. A surprisingly high proportion of their book on building a business, Rework, focuses on the business case for good writing. Remember—they’re a tech business, and a highly respected one at that! Here are some components of the case they make for good writing: Continue Reading →

PLAIN 2013: Matt’s summary

Thanks to everyone who contributed to PLAIN 2013. I learned an incredible amount about the work of plain-language experts around the world. Here are a few of my highlights from the conference:

Joe Kimball

Always write the draft in plain language. Editing and revising after the fact is never going to truly be successful.

Martijn Jacobs

  • Use the company’s own standards and values to articulate the importance of writing clearly.
  • Define a style based on the the company’s values and get management to sign off on that style.
  • Revise all standard documentation—HR, legal, IT, and other basic forms and materials—into plain language. These revised documents will set a clear standard and a foundational tone.
  • Without buy-in from IT, who’s going to have to implement an incredible amount of the changes you’re making, don’t bother starting a plain-language project.

Robert Linsky

68% of people simply give up if they have problems filling out a form.

Ensure that users of your documents can do the following:

  • Locate the critical information in the document
  • Understand what that information is communicating
  • Navigate the document; find their way to what’s essential
  • Act on the information; do what’s required of them

Karen Schriver

Literacy Levels

If you classify readers as novice, intermediate, and advanced, you’re oversimplifying. We all function at a range of literacy levels, depending on a wide range of contexts and variables:

  • knowledge
  • motivation
  • stress level
  • health
  • technical and technological skill
  • time

Nominalizations

In most cases, readers do, in fact, find nominalizations confusing. But when the nominalization occurs in the sentence’s subject position and refers back to an idea in the sentence that immediately precedes it, the nominalization doesn’t cause problems.

Design

Design is just as important as language in terms of a document’s readability: visually dense texts make people quit before they even start reading a document; verbally dense texts cause them to give up shortly after starting.

Typography

When a document’s resolution is excellent, sans-serif fonts are just as readable as serifs. Other typographic elements are much more important:

  • leading and kerning
  • resolution
  • contrast
  • document design

The Nature of Communications Professions

The work of writing is much more collaborative and grounded in the reuse and reconfiguration of already-existing materials than a matter of sitting down with a blank screen or sheet of paper and inventing new material from scratch.

Mark Hochhauser

Vocabulary and Literacy

Vocabulary is the most important factor in comprehension. Readers need to understand 90% of the words in a text in order to comprehend that text at a basic level. They need to understand 98% of the vocabulary to comprehend it well.

Comprehension Tests

Many tests of readability and comprehension are poorly designed and inconclusive. The tests frequently:

  • use a nonrepresentative sample of readers (college students)
  • test comprehension of very short passages of text
  • use true-or-false questions to gauge comprehension, so that subjects achieve 50% comprehension just by guessing

Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow is a good source for better understanding how our minds work as we read and write. It emphasizes the many heuristics that we depend on to make decisions; most of these heuristics are not particularly logical or analytical. We frequently depending on intuition and emotion to make decisions, but we don’t take that fact into account when we write, even in plain language.

Deborah Bosley

It’s hard to be simple; it’s easy to be unclear.

Consumers depend on trust more than any other factor, even results, when they choose a financial services provider. But their trust in these providers has (understandably) declined substantially in recent years. But companies who switch to plain language find that communicating in plain language dramatically strengthens consumers’ trust.

When you research usability and readability, your sample only needs to be seven customers in each market you’re testing. Any tests beyond seven will typically repeat answers. But you’ll probably have to do more tests anyways, because most companies don’t believe that seven tests is sufficient. One or two dozen will likely be necessary.

For a comparatively low cost, research into usability saves companies time and money and boosts their reputations dramatically.

Welcome, PLAIN 2013 attendees!

Thank you to everyone who came to our presentation on the relationship between Global English and plain language. And special thanks for your incisive questions. Please contact us if you have any other questions or comments.

Please take a look around and sign up for our email newsletter if you’d like to learn more about Global English. And if we haven’t met, please introduce yourself. We’ve enjoyed meeting so many people who are involved in solving the same communication problems we face every day. Enjoy the rest of the conference.

Your audience is global, whether or not you like it

The primary goal of Global English is to make your writing clearer for both nonnative English speakers and translators.

“But,” you say, “our business isn’t international! We work only in the United States [or Australia, or England, or whatever other primarily English-speaking country you’re in]. So there’s no point in bothering with this Global English stuff. It’s just extra work! Besides, people will get the point.”

Maybe your business could survive assumptions like these 100 years ago. But the simple fact is that your audience is global no matter where you are or what you do. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 80% of Americans are native English speakers. That means a fifth of your clients, customers, and audience are not native English speakers. Moreover, the Bureau reports that 60 million Americans don’t speak English at home. If 20% isn’t a large enough number to convince you, then your business has much bigger problems than your writing!

If your business has a website, you’ve got a global audience. According to one source, 73% of internet users don’t speak English! My personal homepage—which, trust me, is an incredibly low-traffic site—has had visitors from Canada, Brazil, Latvia, the U.K., and Israel in the past few months. On the web, you automatically have a global audience, and you can choose whether to embrace that audience or leave them to fend for themselves.

If you choose not to leave your readers to fend for themselves, the previously cited article by Antoine LeFeuvre in A List Apart provides helpful guidance.

LeFeuvre’s main point is that you need to build your content for a multilingual audience. The mantra that is often heard in web design discussions now is “mobile first”: design your sites under the assumption that users will access them via mobile devices. LeFeuvre claims that “foreign first” is an equally important mantra: design your sites under the assumption that you’ll be creating multilingual versions that are translated and localized for your global audiences.

LeFeuvre makes a strong point, and makes it well. But the argument sets up a false dichotomy: if your site isn’t multilingual, it’s not friendly to foreign, nonnative English-speaking readers.

This dichotomy is false because you have another option: create your content in Global English. By writing in Global English, you’ll ensure both that your English-speaking readers encounter the clearest-possible writing, and that your non-English-speaking readers have the best possible chance to understand your meaning when they use machine translators to translate your content. And, when you start with Global English content, you’ll be able to create foreign-language sites much more easily and cost-effectively.

An article from the Harvard Business Review about a new HBS class emphasizes this same point—that the market for every business is international: entrepreneurs need to “build for global competition from the start.”

If you’re an entrepreneur today, “you have to think much earlier and much faster,” according to Harvard Business School professor William Kerr, who teaches the new course, titled Launching Global Ventures.

Kerr concludes by claiming that even if a company “is based solely in Boston, the world and competition move so fast that founders need to think globally from the start.” This quotation is a perfect restatement of the idea I tried to articulate in the previous post.

Kerr makes another important point about how businesses need to think globally. The article’s author paraphrases Kerr’s points:

Throughout history, Kerr argues, global ventures have been governed by two common forces. First, there must be an advantage to connecting two different places—Christopher Columbus’s desire to link European markets to Chinese silks, say, or Silicon Valley’s desire for cheaper programming talent in India. Second, a global company needs methods and tools to enable the venture, such as long-haul ships for Columbus or the Internet and telecom infrastructure for Skype.

Kerr’s point about the “methods and tools to enable the venture” is crucial. Communication is a tool that every business uses every day. As with all tools, it can be used well or misused. But most of the time, it’s such a basic, essential tool that it’s simultaneously constantly used and constantly ignored.

If you recognize that you need new methods and tools to deal with a new global economy, then you’re in a perfect position to rethink even this most basic tool. Global English, because it’s based on evidence and centered around writing for the global market, is the ideal foundation for your communication strategy. Global English should be the cornerstone of your efforts to “build for global competition from the start.”

In short: you don’t have to immediately create foreign-language content to have a business that’s friendly to your global audience. By writing in Global English, you’ll take a substantial first step toward content that works for the world.

“Ambiguity kills great ideas.”

I love The Great Discontent. Their site is beautiful, their questions are penetrating, and the people they interview are brilliant. In their latest interview, their guest is Scott Belsky, the founder of Behance. The wide-ranging interview engages the themes of meaningful work, creativity, and community.

At one point, Belsky makes a point that pertains directly to the problems that make Global English necessary. When asked if he’s ever worked with anyone remotely, Belsky responds:

Well, now I work with a ton of people remotely through my new role in Adobe. I think it’s all about communication and having that gut instinct of knowing when you’re not aligned and something needs to be clarified—and then actually clarifying it. Ambiguity kills great ideas, and great leaders kill ambiguity. You definitely have to assert yourself more when you’re not working in the same place.

Belsky’s point gets to the core of Global English: in the contemporary business world, there’s no room for ambiguity. Your language has to be precise, because there are so many more opportunities to be misunderstood.

The only place I’d take issue with Belsky is his implication that “knowing when you’re not aligned”—which I take to mean “knowing when you’re not communicating clearly”—is knowledge that comes by way of “gut instinct.” I’d say it’s just the opposite: knowing when you’re “not aligned” is something you can learn by paying attention to your writing and to your audience. In fact, it’s exactly the problem Global English was designed to solve.

In any case, I agree with Belsky’s main point in this response: ambiguity kills great ideas, so you need to deliberately kill ambiguity. Go read the entire interview; it’s excellent.