Saturday, May 1, 2010

Why Writing for Business Ought to be Child's Play

With last weekend's Grand Opening of the Delaware Children's Museum, a 5-month period of involvement for me comes to a satisfying close. Working through Sparks Museums, GoConvergence and Cloud8 Design, I contributed the scripts for all of the videos and interactives in the museum, along with a considerable amount of written content for the graphic panels that accompany many of the exhibits there.

And with that experience (my second with a children's museum...the first was when I served in a similar role for one in Miami, Florida), I have come to the conclusion that anyone working in a corporate environment who holds a position in middle management or higher should have the opportunity (or maybe even be required)to develop content for a children's museum.

Corporate emails, presentations and reports would benefit immensely. And immediately.

What's the benefit? Well, it's not to encourage you to be condescending with your readers or your audience (and most of us know that you talk down to children at some risk). Rather, it's because the experience forces you to simplify your thoughts and write with greater clarity.

In a children's museum, you're not writing to impress....or to disguise lack of progress...or inflate disappointing results. You're writing to a way that can be comprehended quickly and easily. Why not the same in business?

Try this for a challenge: explain the basic concept of inflation (a topic that boggles even adults) to a target audience of kids ages 8-12...and do it in 85 words. Now write the same amount of copy on how to estimate healthy food serving sizes. Or the best way to choose a career. Start thinking like that and I guarantee your next memos will be rifle shots that are refreshingly clear, direct and devoid of a single extraneous thought.

For years, I've told clients (in the course of reviewing copy) that The New York Times is written to a 10th grade reading level for a reason. It turns out that was just scratching the surface. USA Today is also written to the same reading level...but many other newspapers and magazines aim one grade lower.

In1992, the National Center for Education Statistics, in cooperation with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), conducted a National Adult Literacy Survey. According to this survey, the average adult in the U.S. reads between the 8th and 9th grade reading levels.

And, in fact, such novelists as John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Steven King and Clive Cussler write at a 7th grade reading level. So did the late Michael Crichton.

While it could be argued from this that America's literacy level needs to improve, for the purposes of this post, the better take-away might be “don't write over the heads of your readers.”

Don't fill your emails, reports and presentations with technical terms or trade-specific phrases unless you are completely sure your audience is familiar with them. Worse yet is “corporate speak,” a vernacular that is specifically designed to say much but communicate nothing.

But be warned: the task of re-writing and editing is hard work. I'm reminded of a comment by French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (often incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain as well as others), which has been loosely translated as: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

It does not take much time or effort to ramble on with extraneous information and side trips to nowhere. But the effectiveness of your message improves when you work at simplifying your thoughts and shortening your supporting information. You need to take the time, so your reader doesn't.

Shakespeare didn't tell us the whole story. Brevity, it turns out, is the soul of a lot more than wit.

** Additional Reading: (Many thanks to my good friend Barry Chudakov of @metalifestream and for the tip)