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    Putting the "Write" Foot Forward

    Wednesday, January 05, 2011

    Photo of men's dress shoesJoe Navarro worked 25 years for the FBI as a counterintelligence special agent and is now a consultant for three other government offices in Washington. A specialist in body language, he says he has been stunned to discover just how ill-equipped businesspeople are to present themselves effectively in person. (You can read more about Navarro in "Secrets Of Nonverbal Communication" by Susan Adams at Forbes.com.)

    I have a similar feeling about business writing. During 25 years in publishing, I've met many brilliant businesspeople who simply don't write well. The difference is that while few of us were taught anything about body language in school, writing has long been a subject of study, with grades attached. Unfortunately, writing in school has often involved literary theme papers, which may seem far from down-to-earth matters of business.

    As a result, many otherwise brilliant businesspeople are actually disdainful of good writing. If the message gets across, they may argue, what do a few grammar and spelling errors matter, let alone matters of style? This rationale misses two important points.

    First, every bit of unnecessary energy a reader expends to comprehend a message is money lost. We all know how physically draining it can be just to clear an e-mail inbox. Does this message need my attention? Does it give me all the information I need for action, or will I have to request clarification and watch for a second message to arrive? Exactly what is this writer trying to say? Poorly written e-mail reduces productivity. So do poorly designed PowerPoint presentations, and reports, and instruction manuals, and so on. Good writing saves money.

    Second, writing errors are like stains on a tie or spinach in the teeth. It's difficult to pay attention to a message when blemishes in grammar and spelling keep drawing our attention away. It's even more difficult to see the sense of a message when issues of style cloud the surface. Poor writing has its own cost.

    Navarro mentions scuffed shoes as a common faux pas among men, in particular. An otherwise professional suit of clothing can be undermined by this one area of neglect. Surely business writing deserves a bit of polish as well.

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by nitecruise