Friday, March 31, 2023

How to improve your business writing

The need for better business writing

Let's face it, a lot of business writing is just bad; you wouldn't read it if you didn't have to. You're left wondering whether the person who wrote it hated writing it as much as you hated reading it.

The problems are well-known: turgid prose, needless complexity, cryptic meanings, pseudo-academic obscurity, and so on.

Annoyingly, books on business writing aren't much help for improving business writing. They explain the difference between an abstract and an introduction and they talk about the need for structure, but that's about it. Style guides are of little use too; they give you advice on how to abbreviate American states but don't help you make your reports readable.

A better type of writing

But business writing doesn't have to be like this. What if I told you there was a style of writing that people:

  • voluntarily read 
  • described as "sparkling", "insightful", or "game-changing" 
  • won Nobel prizes for.

Wouldn't you want to know what it was?

Of course, I'm talking about fiction writing.

Before you object, let me tell you something: fiction writers do a lot of things that business writers should do. They do it so well, they make a living from it. 

Fiction writing basics

Let's look at the basics of what fiction writers do.

Write for their audience. Most, if not all writers know who their target audience is and what they want. Thriller writers, literary fiction writers, and romance writers tailor their writing for the people who buy their books. If they don't, they won't get published and won't get paid. The first lesson for business writers: know your audience and what they want to hear.

Have a good story to tell. No one likes a boring story. Some fiction writers can take a dull situation and turn it into something amazing through insight and storytelling; they can make the ordinary exciting. The second lesson for business writers is: tell your audience an engaging story.

Organize your story. Lots of business writing books tell you about paragraphs and structure, but fiction writing books go much further. There are all kinds of narrative structures available to you; you can tell a story in reverse chronological order, from different character perspectives, with different-length chapters, and so on. Of course, there's also the choice of point of view. Stories don't have to follow a linear time narrative and your business report doesn't have to be linear either. The third lesson for business writers is: use the appropriate organization to tell your story.

Use appropriate language. This is the part I'm saddest about. Fiction writers use all kinds of ways to make their stories engaging:

  • using the active voice rather than the passive voice
  • sentence length
    • use shorter sentences for action and longer sentences for thought
    • vary sentence length for variety
  • avoid using adverbs (Stephen King!)
  • use simple words rather than complex ones (unless the complex word makes a particular point)
  • remove unnecessary words
  • use alliteration, anaphora, tricolon, and other rhetorical techniques
  • ...and so on.

What was the last report that made you think? What was the last report that made you feel anything at all? What was the last report that used alliteration, anaphora, and tricolon crescens to persuade you? The fourth lesson for business writers is: be artful about the language you use to tell your story. 

What to read next

There are a lot of great books on writing fiction. Here are just a few I recommend.

  • Stephen King, On writing.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin. Steering the craft.

Ian Fleming wrote about writing. What he said has aged badly in many places, but his underlying message is clear: he wrote for his audience and he thought deeply about what they wanted. Here's the piece.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Is it OK to lie in business for the right reason?

Can lying in business be OK?

A long time ago I was in a very difficult ethical position. The best thing to do for the business was to lie and mislead technical executive management, but it didn't sit right with me. My boss was more flexible, he did the misleading for me, and the result was the executives made the right decision. Listen to my story and tell me what you think was the right thing to do.

The situation

My company has previously bought exclusively from supplier X, but supplier X was having financial difficulties and had stopped innovating; their products were extremely expensive relative to the market. My company had just spent a large amount of money with X and our technical executive management was very committed to them, it was very apparent we were an "X shop". At the same time, the technology had changed and new entrants had come to the market offering faster and cheaper products. 

My team needed new hardware to generate network traffic. We tried the solution from X, but it just didn't give us anything like the performance we needed and was extremely expensive. We then tried a product from one of the new entrants which gave us the performance we needed (and more) and was much cheaper. In fact, performance was 10x faster and we had the test results to prove it. So my team wanted to buy from the new entrant.

The dilemma

My manager told me that if we told the truth that the new entrant was 10x faster than X and much cheaper, technical executive management wouldn't believe us and we would lose credibility, in fact, it's likely we would be told to go with technology from X even though it wasn't good enough. 

I wanted to educate technical executive management and show them what we'd found. My boss said that was a bad idea and we should spin a story technical executive management could accept.

What should we do?

What happened

My boss took the results and did some massaging. He told the technical executive team that while the new entrant wasn't as fast as company X, it was a lot cheaper and was a better fit for this particular project - he implied it would be a sacrifice for the team to go with the new entrant, but we would do it to save money. He reassured executive management that their prior decision to go with X was sound because the other projects were different. He presented a version of the results that hinted we needed more equipment from the new entrant than we would need from X, but it would still be cheaper overall.

We got permission to go with the new entrant. My boss told me that technical executive management had commented that the new entrant had really come a long way and that maybe in five years they would be as good as X.

Subsequent events

Within a year, supplier X hit bigger financial problems and was taken over. It stopped producing networking equipment completely. My employer moved off their hardware within two years and exclusively bought equipment from new market entrants. 

The story in the specialized press was that X had offered inferior and over-priced products for some time. When new entrants came into the market with faster and cheaper technology, X couldn't compete. X had been reliant on inertia and existing business relationships for sales, but of course, that came to an end eventually.

Technical executive management talked about how their decision to go with the new entrant for my project showed they were on top of things. However, company C-level leadership had changed and they wanted better technical decision-making, so the entirety of the technical executive management team changed. However, I was long gone by this point.

Sunk cost fallacy

This is an example of the sunk cost fallacy where people remain committed to something because of the amount of effort they've previously put into it, even though going with something new would be better. There are numerous examples in business and politics. 

In this case, technical executive management had invested a lot in supplier X, including their own credibility. Because of that investment, they weren't going to change suppliers easily, even though they "should".

Unfortunately, I've seen other examples of the sunk cost fallacy over the years, but never anything as bad as this. Organizational inertia is a real thing and it can be gut-wrenching to make changes. Sadly, the heralds of change are often punished and end up leaving because their message is uncomfortable; the nail that sticks up is the one that's hammered down.

What's the right thing to do?

Over the years, I've come to the conclusion that my boss made the right call in the circumstances. Yes, technical executive management was wrong, but they were deep into the sunk cost fallacy and weren't thinking rationally. There was no way they would have accepted our results, even though they were true. They needed a rationale that would enable them to cling to X while giving us permission to do something new, and my boss gave it to them. The best possible solution for the company was for technical executive management to realize how the market had shifted and change their buying behavior, but they just weren't ready to do so and it would have been career suicide for us to try.

Ultimately, it's not about doing what's right, it's about making the change you can.

What do you think?