How can we improve tedious, drawn-out, written business communications? Josh Bernoff, author and keynote speaker at the 2016 Content Marketing Conference, puts forth a thought-provoking theory as to essentially removing all of the flourishes and vague words and simply getting to the meat of the message. Writing Without Bullshit is a concept that can help an organization’s business communications get to the point. Learn more about Bernoff’s theory and how to get your message across better.
People Want Their Information Quickly
Bernoff starts us off with startling statistics that helps the audience realize more about the behavior of online content consumption:
- 36 seconds is the approximate average time readers spend on a news article.
- People spent an average of 3.3 hours per day on a smartphone.
Readers are online but inundated with content. Remove the unnecessary. Content should be written while applying Bernoff’s Iron Imperative:
“Treat the reader’s time as more valuable than your own.”
You are writing to get a message across clearly to another in a way that does not waste or discount the needs or time of the viewer or recipient. In a time of Twitter and the briefest of character counts, long-winded emails are out. Just say what you have to say already and move on. Strip away the fluff, the filler words, any unnecessary adjectives and more and spit out your point. Bernoff’s tips to writing short include:
- Give yourself a word limit for your content.
- Always edit that first draft.
- When you figure out what you mean, rewrite the piece.
- Delete and organize relentlessly.
He is an advocate of cutting away at the top content of the piece until what you cut affects the true story or message of the piece. He want writers to front-load their writing. You should:
- Cut opening paragraphs until it hurts.
- Make the summary your opener.
- Rewrite the title and opener at the start of and end of every draft.
Have you ever had to reduce a liquid to thicken it to use as a sauce? Time and consistent attention allows the water to evaporate and the flavors and the consistency to come together to brighten your dish. It’s the same for writing. You have all of the elements but time and consistent revisions and rewrites let’s you get to the essence of the message. The writing had better be improved with all of the attention or you need to put down that pen.
It’s an interesting idea about writing but it may be making assumptions of those writing content. If I only had 20 minutes to whip up dinner, I wouldn’t make a sauce that would need to be reduced. I simply don’t have the time. What happens to those writing on deadlines or that have multiple parties and egos needing to be satisfied by adding in their two cents? This is what makes Writing Without Bullshit a theory and may make some elements more suitable for those with the time to put forth their best content creation efforts rather than getting out a piece that is simply good enough.
Time to Write and Purge
Bernoff is not alone in the idea of eliminating unnecessary words and filler language. Take Stephen King on passive language in On Writing:
“…I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe…the subject just has to close its eyes and think of England, to paraphrase Queen Victoria.”
If you want to portray confidence remove most cases of passive voice. As for use in business writing, King believes, “It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently tortuous as well.” Is that what you are trying to do, torture your readers? Bernoff shares similarities with King in his approach to the craft. Bernoff recommends content writers purge the toxic elements:
- Passive Voice;
- Jargon; and
- Weasel Words. Examples include: often, tends to, rarely and other words and phrases that are “vague indicators of intensity.”
Make your message clear to the reader. Bernoff has many examples but the one presenting Inovalon to an audience breaks down the unnecessary and shows how much of the elements above are in a business communication. More than half of the words or phrases fall into the categories that should be avoided listed above.[Image]
Cut. It. Out Already. No one has the time or energy to make their way through the drivel to get to the point. You need to write shorter and get to the heart of the matter.
If Nothing Else
Reveal the structure quickly to the reader by making it easy to consume it online. You want to add lists, subheads, links, graphics and numbers to guide the reader along easily. Bernoff writes that “paragraphs suck.” Prior to getting started, have a strong understanding of the fundamentals. Know your audience, your objective, the action you want the reader to take and the impression you want to make on the reader in the acronym, R.O.A.M., that Bernoff coins. In this way, you can blog without the bullshit and write content that matters to your audience.