Writing is fundamental to business operations. While networking and negotiations set the foundations of corporate engagement, nearly all final agreements are written. The word craft is essential to defining the scope of work and the nature of relationships between companies and clients. Due to its critical nature, writing produced for business purposes must be excellent. And, if the writing falls short, the consequences can be costly.
Business writing is a writing type that seeks to elicit a business response and must be substantive, clear, correct, and easy to scan. In juxtaposition, poor business writing lacks one or more of these defining characteristics, leaving the reader uncertain of the proper response.
When the reader is uncertain, this doubt can result in inaction, an inadvertently incorrect action, or a disagreement. All of these outcomes can incur major costs, which can reach millions or billions of dollars.
The lack of an oxford comma in labor legislation cost a Maine dairy company dearly in 2017. The judges opened their decision on the matter by highlighting the punctuation mark’s legal importance: “For want of a comma, we have this case.” They are referring to this contested sentence:
“Specifically, Exemption F states that the protection of the overtime law does not apply to:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.”
The delivery drivers contended that “packing for shipping or distribution” described one action, referring to packing. The company, Oakhurst Dairy, argued that the law described two actions, referring to ‘packing for shipment’ separately from ‘distribution.’ However, the United States Court of Appeals ruled that without a comma, the delivery workers were not exempt and, therefore, were due their overtime pay. The uncertainty in this sentence ultimately cost the dairy company 5 million dollars.
Employing euphemisms to diminish bad news has been a criticized business writing practice. A tragic example of this practice can be found at General Motors in the case of Chevy Cobalt’s ignition switch. The faulty switch could cause the car to turn off while driving, losing the power steering and power braking functions and causing airbags not to deploy during a crash. This dangerous problem has been linked to 97 deaths.
GM was aware of the problem in 2003, but a total recall did not happen until 2014. The reason? The faulty switch was labeled a “customer convenience” problem and not a safety problem. This unclear language minimized the severity and, consequently, did not trigger immediate action. GM’s internal miscommunication led to a delayed response and reputation and financial losses. To date, GM has recalled 2.6 million cars, with a total cost of 1.7 billion dollars.
These case studies demonstrate extreme errors, but the reality is that poor business writing is an all-too-common problem. A 2016 survey by Josh Bernoff reports that 81% of businesspeople stated that poorly written material wastes a significant amount of time. This study highlighted that American businesses spend 6% of total wages working to get meaning out of poorly written material. This time, simply put, is wasted, and its total cost is $396 billion! Plain language expert William DuBay, further highlights this wasted time, with an estimate of poor communication costs nearly 40% of the business transaction management.
This poor writing has high direct costs and opportunity costs. Ineffective or slow writing processes and additional follow-up required to clarify ambiguous messages is employee time not spent on value-added activities.
To calculate how much your company can gain by averting poor business writing, input your business’ information in Instructional Solutions’ Return On Investment Calculator. For example, if your company has 20 employees earning $55,000 each who spend half their work time writing, improved writing skills could save $137,500.
Poor writing is so prevalent that it can sometimes be difficult to recognize. The following examples illustrate some common error types with explanations of why they can be damaging to your business.
Ambiguity is one of the most common business writing errors. Text that is open to interpretation will inevitably be interpreted in different ways by different parties. Business agreements, such as contracts, are typically prepared by legal departments to avoid such confusion. However, an excellent business writer must remain vigilant because a simple conjunction or comma can entirely modify meaning and, ultimately, the business outcome.
Example: Business Agreement
“The Service Provider will be responsible for refunding all defective materials and overstocked inventory reported to Customer Service within 30 days of delivery.”
Does this contract state that the company will refund defective materials at any time? Or, will the company refund only defects reported within 30 days of delivery? Each party will read the contract with their own best interests in mind. This ambiguous sentence can result in an upset customer or higher operational costs, neither of which are good for business.
Clear and professional tone is a core component of business writing. Proper tone enables the reader to understand better the urgency or gravity of an interaction. Relaying a message with an inappropriate tone can produce an inappropriate reaction.
Example: Internal Email
This email is both abrupt and unclear. The writer assumes that Alex knows which numbers are required and by what time. However, this assumption leaves space for Alex to send too much or too little information on an unclear timeline. Further, while the tone of the email highlighted the task’s urgency, it can be interpreted as rude or unprofessional.
Need your sales numbers ASAP.
A clear editing process ensures that all external communication meets corporate standards. One tactic that some companies rely on to simplify and standardize the communications process is templates. Templates are highly valuable but must be used carefully and in concert with a thorough editing process.
Example: Scope of Work
We are pleased to do business with Acme Enterprises. Our first training session will take place within the next two weeks. […] Our program will be tailored to the precise needs of Johnson Inc. to best serve your company’s operations.
A template proposal was reused for Acme Enterprises, but not all occurrences of the prior customer, Johnson Inc., were removed. This mistake sends the message that the writer has poor attention to detail and that the information is not as ‘tailored’ as expected. A simple error will lower the client’s confidence, which is the opposite of the desired outcome.
The costs of poor writing are stark. Fortunately, the solution is straightforward – improve your company’s business writing. Writing is a skill that can be taught and honed through strategic business writing training. Internal communication systems and editing processes can be developed and refined. Ultimately, these efforts will avoid damaging errors and increase productivity.