Bad writing is a drag on the economy.
Author and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker emphasized that point in his recent Wall Street Journal essay, The Source of Bad Writing.
His arguments resonate with those of us who regularly slog through muddy messages…try to decipher convoluted text…and attempt to crack the code on puzzling requests.
As we try to turn cluttered information into action, we waste time, tire our brain and increase our stress levels. We also can make mistakes.
In the essay, Pinker focuses on the downside of “the curse of knowledge.”
Basically, those who are cursed with knowledge are so familiar with their subject matter that they have lost the ability and the empathy to explain the topic clearly and succinctly to others.
Without clear explanations and signposts, those who are on the receiving end of these messages can easily get lost. Making matters worse, there’s often no obvious path to get out of the swamp and back on track.
Besides the curse of knowledge, two other big time and productivity sucks are “roundabout requests” and “incompatible information.”
“Roundabout requests” are indirect statements that require several back-and-forth communication cycles to figure out. They often are in the passive voice, which also hurts their effectiveness, according to the brain science. (For background, see the blog 5 ways to pay attention—to your verbs.)
Here’s a ”roundabout request” I recently received via email:
“By the way, the January date has been changed so please take that off your calendar.”
Because the individual, who had already expressed her concerns with my blog about “expert/idiot meeting formats,” declined to speak with me via phone or in person, I had to probe via email.
After several exchanges, the message became evident: She was dis-inviting me to speak at a meeting of her professional association. Furthermore, the original date had changed; however, she said I could still attend the meeting as a participant.
The one clear lesson from this exchange? This individual is not a candidate to become a founding member of the yet-to-be-formed organization “People who are too direct for their own good.”
As for “incompatible information,” these are sloppy messages. The days of the week and the dates don’t match. Or, the messages include either misspelled names or the wrong names or other inaccuracies.
We get in a hurry, don’t check our facts and cause others and ourselves more work trying to figure out the truth. Even though I was trained in fact-checking, I’m still guilty of making these mistakes.
What to do?
We need to be mindful that bad writing does more than contribute to information pollution and wastes resources. It hurts productivity—ours and others’.
Easier said than done, but we need to slow down.
We also need to spend more time thinking about what we’re doing. It’s telling that the name of Pinker’s new book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
So if you’re emailing, re-read and fact check before you hit “send.”
If the topic is technical or new to people, take the time to test your message with others first.
Try to put yourself in other peoples’ shoes to understand how they may react.
For example, after several recent interactions with Southern women, I know now I’ve got to be more empathetic and adjust my communication style for them. It’s too direct, abrasive and discourteous.
It may be difficult, but it will be worth it—I’ll be contributing to the health of the economy.
What actions are you willing to take to improve your communications and the economy too? You’re welcome to join the LinkedIn Lean Communications Group, which supports individuals who want to improve their communication effectiveness and efficiencies by applying lean practices and principles.
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