Friday, September 30, 2011

Business Writing: What We’ve Lost



I've been involved in a research project for the last eight months that has allowed me to spend time in one of the finest corporate archives in the world.  The documents I've read span the last 110 years, back to the turn of the twentieth century.  The first 40 years are particularly fascinating because they comprise the correspondence, memos and field reports of the seven entrepreneurs who founded the company.
  
Six of the seven men were college-educated engineers.

After a few months of work in the archives, here’s what struck me most: All seven men were superior writers.  I mean really, truly good writers.  A couple probably could have made a career of it.  Their correspondence with one another and their customers, their technical reports, and their marketing and sales literature were all impeccably authored, powerful, sometimes funny and occasionally biting--and an absolute joy to read.

It took me a couple of months of wading into the material to understand how remarkable this was.   These were not English majors.  They were often dealing with dense, technical topics.  But there was nothing sloppy or short-cut about how they expressed the written word.



It reminded me of a sports radio program I like.  It features two hosts.  Both hosts are knowledgeable, but I realized recently that I found myself gravitating more to the opinions of one over the other.  That’s when it donned on me: The host that consistently offered the more cogent, nuanced arguments also happened to be a long-time columnist for one of the local newspapers.  Two or three times, week in and week out, this “host-columnist” writes a thoughtful piece designed to argue some point of view.  While the “sportscaster host” certainly isn’t dumb, I can hear a clear difference in the way he assembles and delivers his opinion.

The act of writing is meaningful.

I was at a presentation last week that relied on a set of PowerPoint slides.  It was a very strong deck and accomplished what was intended. Still, I wondered what we may have lost in the transition from business memo to PowerPoint over the last ten or twenty years.  Maybe just a slew of needless conjunctions?  Certainly a bunch of atrocious English.  In fact, perhaps PowerPoint, email and text have leveled the playing field so that the entrepreneurs of 1911, forced to give up their memos, would sound very much like the entrepreneurs of 2011.  Good ideas would win out, undeterred by poorly concocted prose.



I’d be the first to admit that I like PowerPoint because it’s a whole lot easier than writing a full business memo.  There’s no part of me pining for the days of quills and penmanship.  But my sense is that we’ve lost something by not forcing ourselves to lay out ideas and to build arguments in prose.   I can’t prove that, but I don’t think anything has come along to replace the disciplined thinking that we’ve given up.

I suppose, too, that I’m expressing future sympathy for the business historian of 2111 who will, a century from now, try to paint a picture of the fortunes of the successful company launched in 2011.  Instead of the beautiful prose I found in my archives, he or she will be left with a thousand mind-numbing PowerPoints, 100,000 terse emails, and a million ungrammatical text messages.