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Best Business Writing Book

Despite its off-putting title, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide  is the best book on business writing of this century.

I’m not exaggerating. While other good books on business writing focus carefully on the message, the audience, and the right methods, this book boldly broadcasts the message that business writing is—or should be—communication between human beings.

People love a good story. People enjoy excitement and fun in their lives, even at work. People want to do business with other people they like, understand, and trust. If those things are true about people, then business writing should tell good stories. It should not be dull, disagreeable, unintelligible, or dishonest. 

For me, that’s the paramount message of this outstanding book by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky.

Some of my favorite bits:

  • Learning that the Flesch Reading Ease scores of the letters of successful business people are higher than those of business people in trouble. Among the high scorers: Jeff Bezos, Jack Welch, Warren Buffet, Meg Whitman, Lou Gerstner. Among the low scorers: Ken Lay, Dennis Kozlowski, Richard Scrushy, Richard Grasso.
  • This straight-talk statement from Jack Welch: “We will be number one or two in every business we’re in, or we will fix it, close it, or sell it.” The authors compare his quote with typical corporate-speak: “We will be ranked among the top companies in our industry, unless there are unforeseen changes in the competitive landscape that affect our competitive capabilities. . . .”
  • This statement of jargon’s right to exist: “Real jargon—technical language among real experts—isn’t the problem. Gratuitious jargon is the problem.”
  • The disturbing assertion that dull PowerPoint presentations paved the way for the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster: “The lethal truth was buried in the lowest level bullet points.”
  • The contrast between today’s nonstop disclaimers and the bold vow: “I do.”
  • The extensive list of suspect terms such as bandwidth, bleeding edge, client-focused, leverage, repurpose, value add, and deliverable. For the definition of deliverable, the authors offer this: “A lot of businesses don’t actually make anything. These businesses make deliverables.” As a person who sometimes promises deliverables, I need to think more about that word.

Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide is a fine book. Let’s read it, mark it up, and try to live by its principles—as business writers and human beings.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

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