Business, B-Schools Fight Bad Writing

The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; 1:42 PM

CHICAGO -- Like a dark and stormy night, bad writing has long shadowed the business world _ from bureaucratese to mangled memos to the cliche-thick murk of corporatespeak.

But in an era of nonstop e-mail and instant and text messaging, written communication skills within companies may be getting even worse as quality is compromised by the perceived need for speed.

Wary of the trend, not just businesses but business schools across the country are working harder to eschew obfuscation. Some have added or expanded writing programs in recent years; others use corporations' faux pas as case studies in hopes their students will learn to avoid them.

"It happens every day that businesses send bad messages," said Jim O'Rourke, a management professor at Notre Dame and director of the university's Fanning Center for Business Communication. "They send messages they don't intend."

Sometimes the message is just a case of execrable writing.

Dianna Booher, a communication training consultant for Fortune 500 clients, submits the following example from a company manager: "It is my job to ensure proper process deployment activities take place to support process institutionalization and sustainment. Business process management is the core deliverable of my role, which requires that I identify process competency gaps and fill those gaps."

Translation: I'm the training director.

In the words of former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt, who led a campaign in the 1990s requiring "plain English" in corporate and mutual-fund prospectuses: "The prose trips off the tongue like peanut butter."

But it's no longer just the inability to string clear, coherent thoughts together that poses the biggest risk. Rather, it may be clicking the "Send" button too hastily.

Business students got a prime example this year when RadioShack told about 400 workers by e-mail that they were being laid off immediately. "The work force reduction notification is currently in progress," the company told employees at its headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas, in August. "Unfortunately your position is one that has been eliminated."

An even more memorable case of bad corporate communication, involving an infamous memo sent by Cerner Corp. CEO Neal Patterson in 2001, is still providing learning material five years later.

Upset that the company's parking lot was less than full by 8 a.m. and emptied out around 5, Patterson sent out an angry e-mail berating employees for laziness and promising to fire managers in two weeks if they didn't shape up. He shut down the employee gym and said "hell will freeze over" before he would allow more benefits.

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