March 8, 2007

Clear, Compelling and Concise - Writing for Impact

Ever watch a commercial and ask yourself, "What was that all about?" Ever get a sales letter and wonder, "So what? Why should I care?" Ever get a proposal and groan at the thought of reading the whole thing?

Persuasive messages are characterized by the three C's: Clear, Compelling, and Concise.

Attached are our best tips for helping you achieve those qualities in your persuasive documents.


Tom Sant

Clear, Compelling, and Concise: Writing for Impact
Here are three tips to help you write more persuasively.

1. Don't write like a bureaucrat
Bureaucrats use pompous, unnecessarily obscure, or pretentious language to impress or intimidate the reader rather than to communicate clearly.

Here are three warning signals that you or someone you love may be producing text that sounds like the braying of a pompous donkey:
(a) lots of big, pretentious words: 90% of your words should have one or two syllables
b) lots of long or overly complex sentence patterns: keep your average sentence length around 15-17 words per sentence for maximum readability
(c) too much passive voice: we normally use passive voice only about 10% of the time; that's a good percentage for your writing, too

Here's an actual example of a sentence that violates every one of those guidelines. It actually appeared in a sales proposal!

The dimensionality of expected project problems coupled with the limited time available for preparation means that choices will have to be made to assure viability of the most critical analytical processes."

What this is supposed to mean is anybody's guess, but here's a shot at translating it into plain English that uses simpler words, cuts the sentence down a little, and eliminates the passive voice:

Because this project will focus on major problems and because time is short, we must prioritize our work so that we analyze the most important processes first.

2. Use the Primacy Principle to your advantage

People naturally assume that whatever comes first must be most important. So put your key points or information up front when you write. This rule goes for sentences, paragraphs, and the whole proposal.

For example, can you hear how negative this sounds?

"All assumptions are considered preliminary until the final proposal, SOW and vendor management responsibilities for each study is approved."

As the old song says, you've got to accentuate the positive. Here's a rewrite:

Once the proposal, scope of work, and vendor management responsibilities have all been approved, we can finalize the project assumptions.

3. Finally, keep your sentences and paragraphs short

Short sentences and paragraphs are usually easier to read than long ones.

As a general rule, the majority of your sentences should be between 10 and 35 words in length, with the average around 15-17 words. Use short sentences to make a strong point. Use longer ones for detailed explanations and supporting evidence.

Similarly, even though you may have been taught differently in school, paragraphs can have any number of sentences, including just one. In fact, fewer is better, because most people do not find large blocks of type very inviting.

The preceding paragraphs exemplify this principle. The three paragraphs contain 92 words and six sentences, for an average sentence length of 15+. And none of the paragraphs contains more than three sentences. They read pretty well, don't they? (The correct answer would be, "Yes, they do." Thank you very much.)