What’s All the Noise (Part 1)
Bad writing habits confuse your readers
Early in my communications career I wrote letters for the VP of my division. When I’d finished a draft, I’d send it to him and wait for his approval. He’d pick over every word and wouldn’t sign off until it was simple enough for a 12-year-old boy to understand. At first I blamed him for being a stickler, but I soon realized that he was stumbling over MY words and MY bad writing habits. Through these long wordsmith sessions I came to understand the concept of noise.
What is noise?
Noise is anything that stops your message from reaching your reader. For example, if the network goes down, the message won’t arrive. If your topic is highly technical, some readers might miss your point. Emotions and other human dynamics also play a role, but they’re a bit tricky to predict. I’d like to focus on the noise you can control: your bad habits.
The Top 5 Sources of Noise in Business Writing
Every year I review thousands of emails, letters, memos, and reports. To survive my workload, I split it into two stacks; one pile with the items I want to read, and a second pile with the ones I don’t. Here are the top five problems that send your work to the second pile:
1. Sloppy layout
If my first glance tells me that your document is going to be difficult or time- consuming, it goes straight to pile two. If you can’t take an extra minute to make it easy for me, I’m not going to waste my time cleaning up your mess. Noise Control Techniques: Make the design easy on the eyes: short paragraphs, bolded sub-headings, bullet lists, and white space between paragraphs.
2. Poor structure
My brain, like most, needs structure to make sense of information. In a well written document, I can see the flow after one quick scan. Noise Control Techniques: Learn how to sequence your thoughts so your reader will follow your logic EFFORTLESSLY.
3. Fuzzy or missing message
Your ‘Big Idea’ is the engine that makes your communication run, and I should be able to spot it right away. Noise Control Techniques: Write a message that’s clear, concise and compelling, and place it near the beginning. Better yet, preview the Big Idea in the subject line or title.
4. Long sentences
A sentence is a group of words that conveys a thought. Not two, three or ten thoughts. ONE THOUGHT. Please don’t make me decipher long, rambling sentences. Noise Control Techniques: Keep your average sentence length between 17 – 20 words.
5. Formal tone
Even though Plain English is becoming the standard style for workplace communication in North America, many people still believe that business writing should be formal and impersonal. Noise Control Techniques: Practice writing the way you speak – be natural, friendly, and informal. You can’t go wrong with a personal approach.
I’m tempted to write a long wrap-up here, but I know you’re ready to get on to other things, and more words will be noise to you. So I’ll conclude by saying that if you want people to read your stuff, keep these five big stumbling blocks out of your writing.
By Geoff Weinstein