The next time you type a memo to the boss, remember:
No matter how good you think your case is, the boss isn't going to agree if he or she can't figure out what you are trying to say.
Stacks of inter-office reports and memos tumble across Washington desks. Paperwork, of course, helps keep the country running. But complaints arise continually -- the latest from Commerce Secretary Malcolm Baldrige -- that too much is dull, confusing and not to the point.
Are complaints justified? What is the quality of today's on-the-job writing skills in American business and government?
Yale University communications expert Marya W. Holcombe doesn't hesitate a minute:
"By and large, it's abysmal."
Concurs Washington writing consultant Pearl G. Aldrich: "Wordy, full of endless repetition. Full of long strings of dead words, such as 'It is my opinion that . . .' "
And the unfortunate fact is that poor writing may have a negative effect on the country's productivity. Reports and memos, as Holcombe points out, are "the grease that moves the machinery. If you have all the information as a manager and you can't communicate to the people who need it, they won't get their work done. You must use communication to persuade people to take action.
"Unlike my peers," says Holcombe (a director of Yale's Communication Skills program at the School of Organization and Management), "I don't blame TV" for the state of the nation's memos. "I blame institutions where it is permitted to go on. It depends on the man (or woman) at the top." w
Baldrige -- with whose dedicated jargon-fighting efforts she is familiar -- "gets good support," she says, from his staff.
Adds Aldrich, whose Arlington firm, PGA Associates, offers writing workshops to business firms and government agencies: "The higher up I can get, the better it is for the whole company. If I teach the junior staffs, when it (a report) goes to the next highest level, these people shoot it down. They don't know the principles of organization."
Washington is stuffy, Holcombe believes, because office workers sitting down to write "become different people." Visions of past English comp classes dance in their heads. "They're scared to death of words.
"You'll have a manager who can regale you for hours" in conversation, but cuts his colorful vocabulary "in half" when putting thoughts on paper. "They avoid use of the word 'I.' " Phrases become "convoluted," and "they use the passive voice." She suggests dictating your message "to sound like a natural person. You'll see the difference."
Aldrich uncovered a similar fear when she asked dozens of professionals in business and government about their writing problems.
"Something I never expected was the amount of anxiety that showed up. Here are competent people, highly placed, with great degrees. And they're scared to death to put words to paper."
What's behind the anxiety, says Aldrich, is that "these people don't know how to get into this amorphous mess on their desk" -- the "piles of information" they may avoid for weeks because they don't know how to organize it. Engineers and other technical professions appear to have the biggest trouble.
Before they start to write, she tells her students to "decide the purpose" of the report, "identify the audience," "determine the point" and "then line up the support. Once you've done this, the writing is less forbidding."
Another of Aldrich's tasks is correcting myths. One Navy engineer told her: "If I write this in simple language, they'll think I'm simple." He believed that, she says, "deep in his heart."
In the workworld, "You're often competing with others for support for your plans, ideas and objectives," stress Holcombe and Yale colleague Judity K. Stein in their how-to text book, Writing for Decision Makers: Memos and Reports with a Competitive Edge (Lifetime Learning Publications 260 pages). To gain that support, "writing quickly, efficiently and forcefully is essential." But, warn the authors, who have taught "hundreds" of executives, "Writing well is hard work".
When you write, they say, use your managerial skills with people "to meet. the needs of a specific reader, the reader who will take action."
Many memos, says Holcombe, "tend to ignore the reader." For example, they give the boss either too much or too little information. Or they offer one solution to a problem when the boss prefers alternatives.
Memos often are "badly structured and illogical. Little attention is paid to giving the reader guidelines for going through the memo." She suggests including a statement on "why the memo is important" and how the writer "is going to develop the argument. Lots of writers hedge. They fill space with unnecessary verbiage."
Others, who are trying to make a case, "ignore all sense that their proposal must be feasible. They will present a solution, but they don't ask, 'Will it work?,' 'Will the organization accept it?,' 'Will the technology accept it?' " Make a systematic analysis of the problem you are trying to solve before you put words on paper, she urges, and subsequently, the writing will come easier. .
Skip the impulse, she says, to write the "basic self-congratulatory memo -- 'Look at what I've done' -- that generally puts you in a position that appears self-serving."
Holcombe says she "can usually tell within two minutes" if a report is going to be effective.
"The first thing to go for" is a good beginning. (One company vice president she knows "tears off the first page" and reads only that.) With a good start, "basically you've got the person in a mood to accept your argument."
Other suggestions from Holcombe and Stein:
Put recommendations first : "This allows the reader to instantly grasp what you're saying the lays the groundwork for an understanding of your supporting points."
Go easy on acronyms and abbreviations : "distracting" if the reader can't recognize them quickly.
Avoid background : "dull, and executives say they don't read it." An "effective introduction" is more satisfactory.
Use charts and other graphics : to brighten a lengthy text.
Carefully revise the memo : "It always pays off."
In her classes, says Aldrich, students say they are "surprised" that bosses read their memos and reports "to find out what to do next, that they are relying on this material to make a decision." But why else, she asks, would they read it? After all:
"This isn't the stuff you go home and curl up with."