How to achieve eloquence in your writing

Wednesday, 07 September 2016 by

The Oxford Concise English Dictionary defines “eloquence” as ‘fluent or persuasive speaking or writing’ – and “eloquent” as ‘clearly expressive’. So I hope it’s clear why it would help you if either term could be used to describe your business writing.

However, knowing the definitions doesn’t necessarily help you to write with eloquence… which is why I’m going to give you a few tips on one aspect of that very subject.

By the way, Eloquence is the fourth part of my PAGES text-analysis – the process I follow when highlighting the areas for improvement in a client’s writing. In previous blogs, I’ve discussed Power, Architecture and Grammar, all of which can also have an impact upon fluency, persuasiveness and clarity.

We’ll look at Style another time, so for now we’re concentrating on Eloquence. To achieve this quality in your writing, you need to pay attention to your word choices, to clarity and brevity, to the use of plain English, and to avoiding clichés (“like the plague”). Let’s look at just the first of these for now:

Word choices

It may seem obvious, but the vocabulary you choose has an impact on how easily someone can read your message. However, if you’re writing about a business (your own, or the one you work for), it’s easy to get caught in the trap of trying to impress the reader with your word power.

Even when you’re writing to a highly targeted group of brain surgeons, professors, or others possessing above-average intelligence, writing as if you’ve swallowed a dictionary won’t work. By which I mean, it’s very unlikely to help you gain their attention, maintain their interest, or encourage them to do whatever it is you’re asking them to do (e.g. go to your website; attend a conference; pay for your products and services).

[As an aside, some of the best examples of how to write to an intelligent audience come from the advertising of “The Economist”. Just Google for images of ‘Economist advertising’ to see some examples. Note how the words used are quite simple; it’s just that the way they’re used, and the concept behind the ad/poster, is purposefully designed to engage an intelligent reader.]

 

Anyway, back to your word choices – why is it so unlikely that you’ll achieve your aims if you write using pseudo-intelligent vocabulary? There are a couple of reasons:

  1. Such language can come across as pompous, pretentious and self-important: not the most endearing characteristics and, I bet, not the ones that are consistent with your company’s branding;
  2. Longer, more complex words (and sentences) are harder to read at the first time of asking. For anyone.

It doesn’t matter how clever someone is. It’s immaterial how much time he or she has on their hands (and senior hospital staff, professional academics and the rest tend not to be all that idle!). The fact is, nobody has the capacity to “get” a 30-word plus sentence full of multiple-syllable words on a first pass. They’ll need to go back and re-read the sentence – and that’s just not going to happen with a piece of (unsolicited?) communication.

Solution?

Use the words that 70-80% of all people understand and use every day – the vocabulary that you use in your conversations.

This ensures that you not only reach a wider audience, but that more of the individuals within it actually understand your message – without re-reading it. This isn’t about “dumbing down”, but rather about keeping your reader – and their fears, aspirations and time constraints – in mind, and writing accordingly. Your words, sentences and overall message can still sing, it’ll just take a little more of your time and skills to make it do so.

Also, it’s worth remembering that when talking of conversational language, I don’t (generally) mean slang, which is too unprofessional in a business-to-business context. However, it may be appropriate if you’re writing to consumers – particularly the youth market. Also, the day-to-day vocabulary you use shouldn’t include jargon… unless you’re absolutely sure that every reader will understand the meaning behind the latest buzz-words.

 

Enough on word choices for now – although you can probably see from the above how clarity and brevity, the use of plain English, and avoiding clichés are all inter-related with this subject. We may look at those in the future – but in the meantime…

If you commission RichWords to assess some writing samples – with a view to editing, rewriting or replacing the text – we’ll use our PAGES analysis system to give you a structured response. This will consider the Power of your writing and its Architecture, Grammar, Eloquence and Style.

To discuss what you need, please get in touch.

Sign of the times

Tuesday, 12 May 2009 by

As I mentioned on April 24th, public signs need to use plain English (and use it correctly) if they’re to be understood by the largest possible number of people.

Good English is also pretty important when you’re advertising things… including your business!

Here’s a great photo from the blog of marketing guru Seth Godin. But his post isn’t about the negative effect on potential customers of mis-spelling your main product/service offering. Instead, he uses the picture (plus a few other examples) to illustrate this interesting idea about ‘sunk costs’:

When making a choice between two options, only consider what’s going to happen in the future, not which investments you’ve made in the past.”

Council Jargon

Thursday, 09 April 2009 by

A recent newsletter from my friend (and strategy consultant) Charles Kingsmill talks about improving business plans by ‘identifying an enemy’.

As Charles suggests the enemy “could be an industry practice that you feel is wrong [and will put right with your business offering]… or a problem that your customers have.” In this latter category, he cites a subject that’s close to my own heart: “the jargon that makes so many business plans unreadable.”

Jargon ruins so much of the writing I see (and edit or rewrite!) that eliminating it would not only make my life easier, but also – more importantly – help organisations to communicate far more effectively.

It seems that UK councils are among the worst offenders – even though the Local Government Association has a list of 100 words that shouldn’t be used in communications with the public.

In February 2008, BBC News reported that the list “ranges from the slightly muddled such as “revenue stream” [money] and “best practice” [right way to do things] to the downright flabbergasting “predictors of beaconicity” [factors that might lead a local authority to be rewarded under a scheme for the good ones]. Others in the Top Ten include:

Coterminosity [having same boundaries]; Improvement levers [the tools to get the job done]; Holistic governance [taking everything in]; Synergy [thing working better when done together].

So if your documents are peppered with jargon, try rewriting the piece in Plain English. Once you do, more people will understand what you’re trying to communicate and will be more likely to respond and do what you want them to do.

(Photo courtesy of Anyhoo on Flickr)

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