Month: March 2009

Pulling on the root of bad business writing

In his fine weblog Startup Diaries, David Silverman takes a good stab at answering the eternal question: Why is most business writing so bad?

He writes, for example, “I blame this on an educational system that rewards length over clarity. When you get tick marks for bulls’ eyes — and no demerits for the number of darts used — the student learns to overwrite in hopes that at least some of their sentences hit the mark.”

I once experimented with that theory. For one class in graduate business school, I had to write two book reviews. The first one got a bad grade despite concise, well thought out points. Even the instructor agreed. Why the bad grade? He could only cite his intuition accumulated over decades, his “onboard radar,” as he seemed to turn invisible knobs over his ears.

I loaded the second essay with as many “expensive sounding” words — as David Silverman would call them — and made sure to repeat every point at least twice. I got a very good grade.

After class, I said to him, “So, you liked this one better!” He nodded and mumbled something about “points better made.” In fact, I hadn’t even read much of the book, and I hadn’t thought much about what I did read.

That instructor retired soon after, but he left behind many credulous followers of his “onboard radar.”

Rejecting stale tech marketing words

Read a pile of technology marketing and you quickly assume that you alone despise many of the words you keep hearing. They’re words like optimize, leverage, synergy, and utilize. People in this industry don’t really talk like that, do they?

Many don’t, at least not in private, and they don’t tweet like that, either. One tweet trail at Gartner BI Summit complained about exactly this kind of word — these miserable words with all the wild flavor bred out of them like factory-farm tomatoes.

On the list of suggested extinction, Jill Dychè listed optimize and fact-based. Scott Davis listed leverage, co-optition, and dot-bomb. Someone also threw in win-win, synergy, and the lovely utilize.

Mark Madsen cautioned that banning all those words would leave marketing with nothing but proper names and prepositions.

The whole discussion started off when Dychè posted a link to David Silverman’s article in Harvard Business “10 Business Words to Ban.

Now Dave Wells has followed with a weblog post. He left the TDWI conference in Las Vegas last week with his head “afloat in buzzwords.” So many new terms every quarter, and so much ambiguity. ” Maybe its time that we define our terms and differentiate between similar sounding terms.” He goes on to list a few he’d like to see on the endangered list.

Let the movement flourish.

Don’t call me “non-technical”

When I’ve referred to “non-technical” users, I’ve always meant just about anyone working far away IT. Well, based on research by Lyzasoft’s CEO Scott Davis, I think I’d better be careful with that definition.

My concern is not for IT people. It’s for the “quants” in finance, marketing, accounting and operations who may not write code or maintain computer networks but do go deep into math, data and logic most work days. These “quants” resent being called “non-technical” by the IT types. The quants shoot back: knowing SQL, they might point out, is easy compared with modeling demand elasticity.

The mutual disrespect is too bad, especially since the two technical types have more in common than those who rely on “guts.”