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Make it Your Business to Write Clearly

September 22, 2000
Related Topics: Featured Article
From simple e-mails to elaborate presentations, human resources professionals regularly need to write pieces that educate, persuade, inform, or enlighten. Writing is an essential element of business communication. Although many rules of good writing have remained the same for years, writing for the new millennium is a horse of a different color -- but few HR professionals are prepared to ride the changes.

"A lot of these are just variations of rules that were around in Aristotle's day. It's just that we tend to forget them,"says Patricia T. O'Conner, author of Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English (Riverhead Books, 1996).

Using words and phrases that attempt to soften or mask what you're really trying to say not only confuses readers, but it also makes you look dishonest.

HR people not only need to employ the basics of good writing, but also need a strategy behind their writing. The business world is replete with goals and strategies. Business writing is no different.

Many HR people find help in online or in-person business-writing courses.

"I took a course from Information Mapping called 'Developing Procedures, Policies and Documentation.' I would highly recommend it. It has helped me write in a more clear, concise manner and has cut my writing time down significantly,"says Rebecca Lopez, training manager for Beth Abraham Health Services in New York City. (Find the Waltham, Mass.-based company at

"Grammar, words, and styles of writing have changed dramatically and keeping current makes a good impression on both your internal and external customers,"says Tammy Jeffries, administrative secretary for Kitsap Regional Library in Bremerton, Washington. Jeffries, who performs several HR functions, including helping with payroll and working with a recruiter, took a business writing seminar several years ago and still sings its praises.

Jargon-filled e-mails get misunderstood when they travel overseas.

She says she's a better writer and business person because of it, and thinks others can improve their skills, too. The ability to write effectively is a skill you learn; it comes naturally to only a few gifted individuals. If it's learned, how do you get from bad writing to good? All it takes is a refresher on the old rules, and an update on the new ones. And a lot of practice.

Get Clear on What Good Writing Is

Business writing experts say that the most important strategy behind good written communication is being clear, particularly in international communications.

"After all this training and sensitizing, there's one simple but significant adjustment that still needs to happen in most cross-cultural interaction. It involves a conscientious effort to ensure that our communications...are as clear and easy to understand as possible,"wrote T. Russell Walker in a January 1999 Global Workforce article, "Language: Where the Rubber Meets the Road."

"Much of the writing I see is very murky, unclear, and circuitous,"says O'Conner.

Such writers might not be able to see what they're doing because they're so immersed in their own jargon. "One way that people avoid clarity, either deliberately or not, is by their choice of vocabulary,"O'Conner says. "They'll pick very edgy, up-to-the-minute words that are trendy.

She says that she once got an e-mail from a Microsoft techie who wrote: "I'll run some cycles on that." She had no idea what he meant and had to talk to several friends before one of them could tell her that he was saying "I'll think about that." She told her friend that she'd definitely remember the term for future reference. "But he told me, 'Don't bother. It's just a flavor-of-the-week phrase. It won't mean the same thing next week.'"

People tend toward such edgy language in e-mail correspondence. "People are much more casual about writing things in e-mail. This is true as much in the corporate world as anywhere else,"says O'Conner, who used to be an editor at The New York Times Book Review and also conducted a grammar course for the newspaper's employees. But writers take this casual approach at their own risk.

Not only do jargony e-mails (especially those being sent internationally) run the risk of being misunderstood by the reader, but they also are usually kept in an organization's database. You might want to rethink your e-mail strategy if you imagine that someone in a courtroom might pore over your e-mail someday. You can be modern without being trendy.

Experts tell HR people that the key to clearer writing is keeping the reader in mind when you're composing. "The amazing thing is you don't need to be an expert in conjugations, prepositions, or adverbs to do this. All it takes is a flexible attitude on our part and a little effort to ensure we relay information at a level appropriate for the other party,"Walker wrote in his article.

"Almost all of our students, HR or not, have similar problems. Although I could go on and on with a list of them, most improvement comes when they learn to apply the basics,"says Douglas M. Max, managing director of LR Communication Systems, Inc., an Internet-based and on-site writing-instruction company based in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey.

The other biggest problem he sees is that business writers often do not have a clear focus or an objective, and write what they want to write and not what the reader needs to hear.

Max says he sees HR people tending to put a positive spin on things in their writing. "Very often I find them communicating upwards with more 'pleases' and 'may I's,' and with what I call apologetics."

But the tone changes when the communication moves down channel, he says. Then, HR people tend to use "edicts, without feeling the need to explain reasons behind policies,"although employees often need to adhere to not only the letter, but to the spirit of many HR policies,says Max. Neither approach makes for good communication.

Don't Sugarcoat the Facts

Human resources professionals face some tough writing challenges. They must relay information that sometimes isn't easy to communicate because of the impact it has on a workforce. They can get entangled in fuzzy writing because they want to make the information as acceptable as possible to as many as possible.

"I do understand that to some extent, when you work for a company whether in the HR department or not, clarity isn't necessarily your first priority,"says O'Conner, who's also the author of Words Fail Me: What Everyone Who Writes Should Know About Writing, (Harcourt Brace, September 1999). "You want to make things palatable. Palatability [can be] much more important to you than clarity."

The reason behind this often is that HR people are in the delicate position of having to communicate business decisions, such as layoffs, plant closings, or benefits changes that have a big or unpleasant impact on employees' personal lives.

But in the process, HR people can fall into doublespeak or "corporate-speak:" saying something in a way that masks the true meaning of what they're saying. O'Conner says that HR professionals also can be guilty of being "jargonistas." She defines jargon in Woe Is I as "language used by windbags and full of largely meaningless, pseudotechnical terms that are supposed to lend the speaker an aura of expertise."

For example, instead of writing that someone's "compensation is being reduced," HR pros might say "The employee's compensation is being reevaluated and channeled into different resources." You may be so engrossed in HR lingo, you don't realize that people outside your department don't understand what you mean by "rightsourcing" or "negatively promoting" someone.

Using words and phrases that attempt to soften or mask what you're really trying to say not only confuses readers, but it also makes you look dishonest. Leave your acronyms and jargon at the HR door. Write what you mean, mean what you write and leave camouflage to the military.

HR people need to strive for clarity, even if the subject is difficult. "It's much better to be as honest as you can in whatever limits you have to work with and keep the reader with you, rather than to write around the problem," O'Conner said.

Business writing may not be an easy skill to learn, but a refresher course can help you avoid mistakes. Then get out there and say it clearly. Period.

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