Things to Avoid in Business Writing

On 03/19/2010, in Professionalism, by Jordan Wilson
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If you want to make your bosses (or professors) happy, you must avoid certain influences when preparing business communications.

Today we will look at five things to keep in mind when writing for business. There are others, but we will stick with five in this post.

I have previously linked to Forbes.com articles written by Shaun Rein. I did so as I found them of interest. But I take issue with some of the things he wrote and the way he presents his case.

The following is a good example of how not to write.

In Mr. Rein’s Life Lessons From A Street Vendor, he states,

In these difficult economic times, when Wall Street greed and bonuses fly out of control (how on earth can Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs’ chief executive officer, get praised for taking “only” a $9 million bonus?), it is nice to hear that some people still look after their employees and the people around them.

Why is this poor writing?

Do Not Exhibit Herd Mentality in Writing

I read this style of writing all the time. And it never fails to anger me. It angers me even more when I see it on Forbes.com.

People spouting the “in vogue” view of the world with no real facts to support their positions.

Today that is Wall Street as an uncaring, greedy place.

Technically, herd mentality involves people influenced by their peers to follow widespread behaviours or trends.

Like lemmings heading for the cliffs, herd members display no individual thought. In some, I believe herd mentality is due to a lack of intellect. In others, being part of the consensus group is more important than being right. The work world is much like elementary school. People still want to hang out with the cool kids.

As for Mr. Rein, real original in his Wall Street jab. He loses many points in my opinion of his writing after reading that. No analysis. Just a quick example (and faulty at that) and he is off.

To read such simplistic stuff from a Forbes writer is bad enough. But when I saw that Mr. Rein founded and is a Managing Director with CMR, a strategic market intelligence firm, I worry for his clients. The cool kids may like him but CMR would not get any business from me.

When in the work world, think before you speak. Do your analysis and then come to your own conclusions based on the work you have done.

Do not simply follow the pack.

Demonstrating independent thought will serve you well throughout your career.

Say No to Being a “Yes Man”

Related in some ways to herd mentality is the ever present “Yes Man.”

I consider a “Yes Man” as someone who simply parrots the boss’s position on any issue. Some may believe the boss is infallible, but many just want to ingratiate themselves with their supervisor.

Some employers like being surrounded by sycophants, but the good ones definitely do not.

Strong employers surround themselves with staff who are not afraid to voice their own opinions, even if they differ from the boss. The best bosses are those that actually listen to contrary positions and are able to shift their views when prudent.

Most bosses do not mind if you arrive at a different conclusion than they do, even if it is wrong. What they want to see is the logic you used to arrive at your conclusion.

If you are wrong, you can learn for future reference from any faulty logic. Often it is missing information that led you astray and not any fault on your part. A good employer will help you see where you went wrong. But when you shut your eyes and ears and shout out the “herd” view or blindly agree with your boss, it will not be viewed favourably in good companies.

Trust in an employee’s judgement is paramount in climbing the corporate ladder. If your opinion is trusted (and valued), you have a good chance at advancement. If not, prepare for fewer opportunities or try to attach yourself to a boss that likes “Yes Men.”

Do Not Take Shortcuts in Analysis

Most employers hate this from staff. I simply despise it.

When I read a business communication, I need to know that it is complete. If not, there is a good chance that I will arrive at the wrong conclusions. That can be fatal in business.

If I cannot trust my staff for thoroughness and accuracy, I have to make personnel changes. And from experience, no other managers want untrustworthy people on their teams.

In his article, Mr. Rein cites the head of Goldman Sachs (GS) and his $9 million bonus.

Sounds bad. Well maybe if you only read Mr. Rein’s drive-by sniping.

But let us avoid Mr. Rein’s shortcut and add a little more detail to his data.

What if I told you that Mr. Blankfein only earns a salary of $600,000? Almost all his compensation comes from his bonus. This is common for most banks I have dealt with. Salary is relatively low and performance bonuses are high. It incents people to perform.

Whether he performed enough to earn $9 million, I do not know. He made substantially more in prior years. I do not know if those years were merited either. I have to trust the Board of Directors to properly oversee the company (this is a big concern that I have for most companies, but I shall save that discussion for another day).

What if I also informed you that the $9 million was paid in restricted stock and not actual cash. Additionally, the shares cannot be sold before January, 2015.

This ties Mr. Blankfein’s interests to all shareholders as an incentive to enhance shareholder value. If he runs GS into the ground, his share value will evaporate and his $9 million may be worth nothing. But if he grows the company, that $9 million may increase in value. Depending on his performance the share price will move one way or another, benefiting or hurting everyone.

After reading this new information, does your view of the $9 million change a little?

This is the effect of being thorough and accurate in undertaking research.

If completeness is critical, why is some information not factored into the analysis?

Avoid Laziness and Intellectual Dishonesty

Laziness is not doing proper research. You could not be bothered to take the time to get it right.

In today’s internet world, laziness is inexcusable. I was curious about Mr. Blankfein’s compensation so I googled it. In less than 20 minutes, I had all the available information.

If you are lazy, you will not get all the facts. Without the facts it is difficult to arrive at the best conclusions. In business, that will get you sacked quickly.

I suspect that Mr. Rein was not lazy. Instead, he was probably being intellectually dishonest.

Intellectual dishonesty essentially involves people who knowingly omit relevant facts to justify their position. At its extreme, it could involve taking a position that one knows is entirely wrong.

At times the individual may not be aware of the biased or omitted facts. He just puts more value on data that supports his position and less on information that runs contrary. He knows the result he wants and then subconsciously finds facts that support the desired outcome. Facts that do not meet his world view are considered outliers, not worthy of consideration.

Regardless of intent, it is something to be aware of and avoided in business communications.

In Mr. Rein’s world, Wall Street is a greedy place where bonuses fly out of control. It does not help his case to put the compensation in context.

As I pointed out in Street Vendor III, his criticism of Hawaiian Airlines managed to omit the little fact that they were rated as tops in US domestic airlines. Why the omission? It did not fit the narrative he wanted to relate.

I might grant an exception to avoiding intellectual dishonesty in personal situations.

If you are making the case for a job, promotion, raise, or are in court or similar strait, no one expects you to lay out the bad with the good equally. One should not lie, but everyone realizes that you are “putting your best foot forward” in these situations. I would suggest though that you be prepared for any negatives to come out and be able to counter them.

But in business, make sure you thoroughly and accurately conduct your fact-finding. Do not let any preconceptions or biases cloud your analysis.

Then let the data determine your conclusions. Not the other way around.

Minimize the Use of Relative Terms as Absolutes

A relative term is one that needs to be considered in relation to something else. It is not absolute.

For example, I run very fast. Quite true. At least compared to a tortoise or my neighbour with the broken leg. But if I ignore NCAA sprinters or even most people under the age of 60, my statement holds true. That would be some intellectual dishonesty on my part.

According to Mr. Rein, Mr. Blankfein’s bonus is an example of “Wall Street greed.”

He seems certain of it. A relative term has become an absolute in his eyes.

But listening to others without thinking on our own is dangerous. We need to judge for ourselves.

As relative terms should be looked at in context, let us perform some comparative analysis.

In 2009, GS employed 32,500 staff in 30 countries. GS reported net revenues of $45.17 billion, net earnings of $13.39 billion, and a return on shareholders’ equity (ROE) of 22.5%.

On December 31, 2008, the adjusted closing share price was $83.17. On December 31, 2009, the share price was $168.46. Shareholders earned a 102.5% annual return.

Compare this to the 2009 annual returns of the Dow Jones at 18.8% or the S&P 500 of 29.46%. Do you think shareholders were happy with the company’s performance?

Worth an extra $9 million? Not sure. But definitely worth something.

Let us look at a couple of non-Wall Street companies that I read about this week. As Wall Street is “greedy”, I shall assume these firms are not.

Arthur Sulzberger Jr., Chairman of the New York Times Co. (NYT), saw his compensation package double in 2009 to $6 million. Less than the GS payout, but still healthy.

But when we look at some NYT data for 2009, the numbers differ slightly from the GS results.

NYT employs 7665 full-time staff. A significantly smaller company than GS.

Annual revenue fell 17% in 2009 to $2.4 billion. Earnings improved to $20 million after the company lost $58 million in 2008.

On December 31, 2008, NYT share price was $7.33. On December 31, 2009, the share price was $12.36, for a 68.6% increase.

In comparing companies, GS is a much larger company than the NYT, with much better performance. I would think Blankfein’s compensation should be higher than Sulzberger’s.

Now, let us look at a charity that was in the news last week. Charities cannot be greedy, can they?

It seems that the CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Roxanne Spillett, managed to earn $990,000 in compensation for 2008. As the 4300 Clubs are locally managed, I am not quite sure what Ms. Spillett does to earn her pay. I expect a large part of the job involves lobbying governments and fundraising activities.

In 2008, the last financial data issued, the organization raised $92 million in grants, gifts, and contributions. They also managed to lose $13.6 million in 2008.

A very much smaller organization than Mr. Blankfein manages at GS.

According to this story, “officials spent $4.3 million on travel, $1.6 million on conferences, conventions and meetings, and $544,000 in lobbying fees” while simultaneously “closing local clubs for lack of funding.” So it appears she was doing something to earn her pay.

Regardless, I am sure that the $1 million payout was neither greedy nor out of control.

I could go on with other examples, but you get the idea.

Before making blanket (and stupid) assertions, get your facts in order.

This is another area where employers have little patience.

If you assign a relative term to something, make sure that you put it in proper context. Provide comparative information so that others can determine whether your adjective is appropriate.

As for Wall Street greed, the GS compensation, to me anyway, appears actually quite reasonable versus the New York Times and the Boys & Girls Clubs. Whether they are appropriate as a whole can be debated forever.

In the future, I will write some other points on business communications. But for now, that is all.

I hope it helps you down the road.


3 Responses to “Things to Avoid in Business Writing”

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  3. Interesting…and I agree in the most part. Keep up the good work…I will undoubtedly be back shortly



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