Plain talk isn’t easy to find in the business world. Or in politics, for that matter, though I suspect that’s another blog post.
In any setting, most people have no trouble saying what they mean—as long as they’re just talking to each other. But turn on a recording device, or try to capture their thoughts in writing, and the Obfuscation Instinct kicks in. All of a sudden, those clear thoughts become very opaque.
You can find examples of this trend daily at my virtual colleague Josh Bernoff’s blog, Writing Without Bullshit. But I’m at the other end of the funnel—trying desperately not to produce anything for my clients that’s worthy of Josh’s consideration. What’s a writer to do?
- Stay outside the bubble. You’re most valuable to your client if you can maintain the perspective of an external consumer of this message.
- Keep focused on the objective. Especially when they’re writing about a subject they might consider controversial, clients may fall back on meaningless platitudes. Remind them of what they want this communication to accomplish. And remind them that platitudes do nothing but put the reader to sleep.
- Don’t settle for what’s possible. Does your writing go through a number of staffers before it gets to the ultimate client? I feel ya. Staffers often believe their job is to eliminate friction points; that’s where the platitudes come from. Stick to your guns; you have the client’s best interest at heart. If a staffer says, “I don’t think the lawyers will let this pass,” counter with, “Why don’t we run it by the lawyers and see?” Sometimes you’ll hit a lawyer who understands what you’re trying to do.I once went back and forth for with a partner at a big law firm about something I was writing for our mutual client. Five email exchanges and a phone call later, we were both happy. I thanked him for sticking it out with me and he said, “I understand. It’s the opening line of the piece—it’s important to get that right.
When your client has something challenging or sensitive to say, nothing’s more important than plain talk. In those cases, we writers have to give them something more than great language—we have to give them courage as well.