How to write seriously without being pompous

Not all that long ago, people writing for business, academia, professions etc. took the view that the only way to come across properly in writing was to write as formally and long-windedly as possible. You still see examples of this on websites, in blog posts, in white papers and of course printed communications.

Why pompous writing is so bad for business

“You have to use longer words. Longer sentences. You know, make it more corporate.”

Seemingly (now there’s a long word) in those bad old days the fact of using long words and long-winded writing was considered a way of showing that you’d had a good education.

Thankfully those days are over. But their influence lingers on in some quarters and particularly in those where old-fashioned values still lurk, like traditional professions e.g. law, accountancy, finance and medicine.

Why use a short word when a pompous outstretched appellation will do?

This is where writers of pompous prose get one huge wrong number.

As suggested above, using a long word does not make you look like an expert. Worst of all, it can make you look like a pedant: short words, however do not make you look like a peasant. They make you look like a sensible adult with an intelligent message to share.

Let’s assume for a moment that a medical paper was to be read and understood by a lay audience. Here is a short excerpt from one I read recently (I have to read these re: my voluntary work.)

“We applied a pairwise meta-analysis to estimate direct evidence from intervention-control studies and a network meta-analysis within a Bayesian framework to combine direct and indirect evidence. Moreover, a dose-response curve was utilized to predict the optimal median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration based on the odds ratio (OR) for each quintile concentration.”

Even though there are medical terms which have to be in here, there are silly long words which don’t. What would the content lose were it to be phrased like this instead?

“We used a dual meta-analysis to look at direct evidence from intervention-control studies and a network meta-analysis, within a Bayesian framework so we could combine direct and indirect evidence. We also used a dose-response curve to predict the optimal median serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration. This was based on the odds ratio (OR) for each quintile concentration.”

The changes are only slight, but they make the paragraph easier to read and therefore quicker to understand – another important point. Of course, medical professionals will understand everything in version one, but because of longer and crustier link words it takes them long to get to the point.

Some businesses are scared that without pompous writing, they won’t be taken seriously

A few years ago I was hired by a small advertising agency to write a brochure for a company that made components within heavy engineering. The target audience was decision makers, but also engineers themselves who would be choosing and using the components. I have written for engineering audiences many times in my career and although they are highly intelligent people, they don’t like fancy language and particularly insist on calling a spade a spade.

Click here to check out more articles about business writing on HTWB

So I set off on my copywriting journey using a tone of voice and a style that I knew to be appropriate. When I submitted my first draft, however, the MD of the agency – who had no previous experience of engineering audiences – rejected it out of hand. “But this is a corporate brochure,” he ranted. “You have to use longer words. Longer sentences. You know, make it more corporate.”

Being the obedient little copywriter I am, I rewrote it accordingly and guess what: the client rejected it as being far too elaborate for their customers.

And being the nasty little jerk the MD was, he blamed me, signed me off and made a big issue to the client of hiring another copywriter to rework the job. Needless to say this rather put me off working for small provincial advertising agencies run by pompous managing directors, and now I prefer to work direct for clients.

How to keep pomposity out of business writing

Just because we use long-winded medical/other terms doesn’t mean that the wording that connects such terms needs to be similarly Greek/Latin/bullsh*t orientated. Ensure that your linking words and phrases are as simple as possible. As I mentioned above, not only is this more reader friendly, it also helps even experts to understand the information faster.

Believe it or not, there are still people around who believe that corporate = long-winded pomposity. Unless there simply isn’t anything else you can do, if you’re writing something for them show them examples of the typical tone of voice of the target audience, and explain why it’s essential to write for that target – not for the 80-year-old Chairman or the President.

Online communications have done us writers a huge favour here, by making it “OK” to write simply. Unfortunately though, many businesses that produce printed brochures and documents for their audiences – notably documents like The Company Report and Accounts – are still stuck back in the 1950s.

The truth is that no-one has time to read stuff like that any more, and the short answer is if you want your material to be read you have to make it readable in today’s language, in the right tone for your audience.

Have a look at services like Plain English Campaign; a brilliant organisation based in the UK that has been banging the drum about, well, plain English, since 1979. With their humorous approach to the subject they’ll have you smiling, as well as paring down any tendency you may have to use a long word when a short one will do.

We’ve all heard the meme about “sorry I’ve written you a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write you a short one” (variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, etc.) but it’s true. It’s often easier to write rambling, waffling text than it is to compress it down into short, concise sentences and phrases. But it’s well worth doing to keep text crisp and likeable.

What experience do you have of lengthy, pompous business writing? How do you feel about it?

Please share!

And if you want to know more about how to keep your business writing crisp and concise, take a browse here.