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.”

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