Stop Trying to Sound Smart When You’re Writing

By Liane Davey
When I read a piece of business writing, whether it’s a proposal, a report, or a simple email, I’m turned off by people who have invested more energy trying to sound smart than in trying to besmart. Ideally, I’d like to read communications where I don’t notice the writing at all. The best writing is so transparent that it doesn’t obscure the underlying message. You can achieve that in your writing by investing in great content and then stripping away anything that detracts from it.

How do you make your content great? Before crafting a single sentence, you determine the purpose and desired outcome of your communication. You go beyond the facts and information you’re transmitting and push yourself to clarify what you want your audience to think, to feel, and to do after they’ve read your message.

For example, saying that you’re 60% of the way to your annual target might leave one person thinking that you are progressing well and another thinking that the 40% gap is too large to close. If you want people drawing one conclusion rather than the other, you’ll either need to add facts (e.g., last year at this time, we were only 49% of the way there and we only came up 2% short) or commentary (e.g., I know from experience that 40% is well within our reach). Include what’s required to get your audience to interpret the message the way you want.

Once you’re clear on what you want people to think, go one layer deeper and consider how you want them to feel. If you want your audience to act, you need to stir something in them that goes well beyond intellect; you need to evoke the emotions that will fuel action. What are you trying to tap into? Be clear about what feelings you’re trying to create because written communication leaves room for very different emotional reactions. In the example above, do you want people to feel excited by the chance to close the 40% gap? If so, how are you reducing the likelihood that they will go straight to fear of failure? The tone of your message comes out in the words you choose. Choose wisely.

If your message has a purpose, you are communicating because you want people to do something differently. What is it that you want them to do? Does closing the gap mean phoning one customer each morning before opening their email? Are you asking them to recommend one complementary product each time someone makes a purchase? Don’t forget to make the ask.

Now, you’ve worked through what you want your audience to know, think, feel, and do and you might think you’re done. You’re not. Take one more pass through your message to see if the knowledge, perceptions, and emotions set up the action you were looking for. If not, add to or modify your message.

If you’ve crafted a message with a clear outcome in mind and baked in all the components to support that outcome, you’re way ahead of most people. Now, go back over your language and grammar and look for opportunities to simplify, tighten, and remove speed bumps from your writing. You want to fix anything that detracts from the core message. As Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing…rewrite it.” Here are a few things to check:

Eliminate fancy-pants words. If you communicate effectively, you reduce the distance between you and your reader. Unfortunately, many people use language in a way that increases that distance and weakens the connection. There’s no faster way to distance your audience than by using highfalutin words to try to impress them (you know, highfalutin words like, “highfalutin”).

Beware of using words incorrectly. My personal pet peeve is “methodology,” which like every other –ology in the English language, should refer to the study or system of something. If you’re just using a method, say method. While you’re at it, strike utilize, leverage, and paradigm too! (Business jargon is not a “value-add.”) Any time you are inclined to use a word that makes you feel smarter than the person you’re communicating with, choose again. Choose words that strengthen the connection between you and your readers.

Make bulleted lists flow. Using bullet points can help you be succinct and help your reader key-in on the most important information. A bulleted list should create a rhythm for the reader almost like reading the lines of a poem. Unfortunately, it’s common to read lists where the parts of speech don’t match. For example, three of the four bullets might start with verbs but one starts with an adjective. This interrupts the flow and makes it difficult for the reader. Imagine a bulleted list that includes: reduce absences; increase motivation; disengaged employees; identify concerns. If you’re using a bulleted list, make sure each bullet has the same grammatical form.

Use an active voice. The one sure-fire way to make your writing more pompous is to use a passive voice; where the object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence. There’s a great web resource from the University of North Carolina, which gives the example, “Why was the road crossed by the chicken” to demonstrate the impact of leaving the actor in the sentence (the chicken) to the end.

The easiest way to spot the passive voice in your writing is to look for sentences with is, am, are, were, be, being, or been. See if you can rewrite these sentences with a verb other than to be. “Complaints were lodged by customers,” becomes, “Customers lodged complaints.” “The contract will be issued Friday,” becomes, “I will issue the contract Friday.” If you use an active voice, you’ll be more interesting to your reader. You’ll also give your reader more information and leave them feeling that you understand your accountability — all good things in business writing.

Great writing for the sake of great writing is best left to poets and novelists. Great business writing should deliver its content without getting in the way. Invest your energy in choosing words that will inspire the actions you’re looking for and strip away anything that will detract from your core message.


Liane Davey is the cofounder of 3COze Inc. She is the author of You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done and a coauthor of Leadership Solutions: The Pathway to Bridge the Leadership Gap. Follow her on Twitter at @LianeDavey.

This article originally appeared in Harvard Business Review.


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