Vox pop – September 2010

Is the standard of business writing higher today than it was five years ago?

Nick Asbury

I think there’s undoubtedly been a general awakening about the importance of business writing over the last decade or so. For evidence, you only have to look at the proliferation of TOV guidelines, writing workshops, copywriting companies, and the success of organisations such as 26 itself.
The result is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s almost certainly more good business writing around than there used to be, but there’s also a lot more bad writing – where the slightly forced attempts at a winning tone prove more annoying than the dull but inoffensive stuff that was there in the past.

Having successfully staked out the territory for writing, I feel the onus is now on writers to do something interesting with it. I’d like to see a move away from talking about tone all the time to talking about content, narrative, argument – which are usually much more important.

Patrick Baglee, Navyblue

No doubt thanks to the efforts of many members of 26, you would certainly have to argue that the standard of writing within business has improved in the interim. And I do think that businesses have demonstrated a greater desire to embrace once scorned practices, such as developing a tone of voice, or speaking in the way that the customer understands and in doing so they have built internal capacity to do just that. However, there still remains a difference between writing for a business, and writing by a business. If it’s writing by a business, then you would have to hope that the influence of cornerstone documents providing a public voice will somehow filter through to presentations and sales documents generated by wider teams well beyond the marketing hub. In a time of increased competition, John Simmons’ advice to the Royal Mail is as generally relevant as ever: ‘Words are at the heart of business’. Given the challenges faced by business, it’s never been more important to entrust the description of products, services, performance, people and what makes a business and its ideas interesting to those with a love of and passion for words.

John Fountain

Yes, improvements can be seen in certain companies, less so in others. I think those that have improved are a bit more brand savvy, tuned into their market and what they stand for. You sense a buzz about the place and the approach to language and writing usually reflects this energy. Inside these businesses the role of internal comms teams are becoming more and more important not just in circulating information but engaging employees – finding ways to draw people in and connect with the message rather than simply passing on raw directives.

Tom Lynham

Yes & No. Some clients are still terrified of language, and cling to prehistoric business speak that means nothing to anyone. For them language is merely a compliance; a dark and dangerous art they begrudgingly use to tick objective boxes. For others, imaginative and thoughtful writing that exploits surprise, inventiveness, drama and a diverse vocabulary helps them articulate their offer and define their distinctiveness.

Sarah McCartney

I think that the standard of business writing has shot up among the people who do it for a living. You do see a lot of bad writing around, but I think that’s because there’s a lot more writing. The green people tell us that we only print 10% of what we write these days, but we’re still using just as much paper. That’s because we write 10 times more than we used to. At the same time, more people are encouraged to give it a go, so there are more beginners and more people who are plain bad at it. People leave school now and instead of not writing anything ever again for their whole lives, they write on Facebook, write texts, send emails and maybe do a bit of blogging. All in all, this is a GOOD THING.

John Simmons

For every example of bad writing now (and there are still too many) there is also an example of good writing. So I think the overall standard has gone up. At least people do think about it these days, and they do think it matters. And tone of voice has become an essential element of every brand programme, so that’s a big change. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2000 or even 2005.

Mike Exon

Restate the question: is business writing better now than five years ago? Consider the dynamics: improved understanding by corporations of communications imperative; growth of channels and proliferation of writing for online; pressures on marketing budgets; rise of blogs and self-generated writing. Conclusion: no. Implications: there’s a need for more business writing strategies that work across the new fuller range of media, and for writers to understand the nuances between them and take advantage of the opportunities on offer.

Ben Afia

Definitely – and it’s not just because of the collective machinations of 26-ers. It’s because customers are wising up. As customers, we’re getting to grips with how brands use writing to stand out. And that’s changing what we expect from their communications. Indirect, evasive business speak? We can see right through it. We expect honesty and straightforwardness. If we don’t get it, do we shop elsewhere? I’m not sure. Maybe. But it makes a huge difference to how we perceive brands.
There’s much still to do, of course. I’m certain that jargon-riddled City-speak helped mask the financial crisis’ approach. Marketing comms are often out-of-step with letters and policy documents. And customer service centres still churn out poorly-written, evasive bumph: it might fulfil our need for information, but there’s no empathy. Writing like this makes us angry, and anger’s never going to help brand loyalty.

Overall, though, things are getting better. More and more companies are seeing how their writing has a direct impact on winning and keeping customers. They’re training staff to write better by their thousands. They’re rewriting all of their letters. They’re pushing their agencies harder. And their customer service ratings are improving as a result.

Good stuff for the customer? Definitely. But we’re the ones best placed to spread the word, so we can’t let up just yet…

Roger Horberry

Dunno, but mine seems to have gone downhill. Don’t tell my clients.

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