6 Ways To Improve Your Business Writing

6 Ways To Improve Your Business Writing


Lost In Translation 

I was on holiday in one of South Africa’s popular resorts. Think fake palm trees, fake stone walls and fake waves. Yes, I was enjoying all the glory that was Sun City. One of my favourite treats is the buffet breakfast. I was waiting to order my omelette, which is unmatched in any fake-palmed resort in the world, when I overheard an interesting conversation.

An Afrikaans woman, speaking less than average English was desperately trying to order a ‘baked egg’. The chef, who did not speak Afrikaans and spoke average English, was trying everything to figure out what she meant. This involved gesturing, demonstrating and a fair amount of charades before they both figured out she wanted a fried egg. (In Afrikaans, a fried egg is a ‘gebakte eier’ and if you translate it directly, it is a baked egg.)

This made me smile, and luckily, them too, but it doesn’t always end with a smile. The line between desperation and irritation is thin and this was just a breakfast order. Translate this into a business situation when a small misunderstanding can lead to hundreds or even thousands of rands lost. No one is smiling then.

Why is Plain Language so important to your business?

We have 11 official languages in South Africa. Every week I teach between six and ten people on a course. On average, there is only one person who only speaks one language. Most people speak two, three or four. Look at this table:
English is the accepted business language in South Africa and most people speak English as a second language. What can we do to minimise small misunderstandings that lead to big losses? Writing in plain language is one of the first steps we can take.

What is plain language?

A common misunderstanding is that plain language is ‘dumbing it down’. This always makes me laugh, especially when people who work in a jargon-laden industry say it. They use their jargon to explain their jargon then they need to invent more jargon to explain the other jargon. But to quote Albert Einstein: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Plain language is simply a message that everyone understands. Jargon works as shorthand and if everyone understands it, it is great. However, most of the people I teach can only give a vague idea of what the jargon means.

6 Ways To Improve Your Business Writing

  1. Consider your audience: This will help you to decide what information to include or exclude.
  2. New news first: What is the new information you want to share? Start with that and back it up with the reasons or information they should already have.
  3. Re-evaluate your word choice: use the simplest word to explain what you want to say, e.g., instead of saying we will leverage our resources, try we will use our resources.
  4. Keep your sentences short: Shorter sentences mean you will avoid confusion by making fewer mistakes with your punctuation and tenses.
  5. Write in the active voice: Passive voice slows your reader down and can cause ambiguity.
  6. Use your readability statistics: Aim for a readability of 70% or higher in business writing.

Now this won’t solve all our language issues, but it will definitely help reduce the number of misunderstandings. When readers don’t understand your message they draw their own conclusions and this leads to confusion. Confusion wastes time and costs money. The fact the many South Africans are multi-lingual is a huge advantage for us as a country. Read this post to find out why.

Celebrate our multiple languages and change your writing to improve your messages and to communicate clearly. Your breakfast and your business will benefit.

If you want to learn how to write for business, join us for  The Plain Language Programme.

 by Mia Botha

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Anthony Ehlers

    Girl, I don’t even wanna know what you were doing in Sin City LOL. Great post!

  2. Mia Botha

    @anthony, I feel so at home there.

  3. DL Kirkwood

    Mia, I enjoyed your blog and learning SA has eleven official Languages and the percentages.
    Over the years I have tried encouraging new writers to use plain language. Your article gave me a one sentence idea of why. “Do you know anyone who speaks this way?”
    Many new writers muddy up a potentially brilliant scene with flowery prose, not realizing this only throws cold water on the thrill of the scene. I am one of the readers who will wonder ‘Why are they adding too many descriptive words and stringing three sentences together?’
    Good points in your blog. I hope new writers realize this goes beyond business writing.

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