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Writing for the World

The business section of today’s Seattle Times features an article about Free & Clear, a company that provides stop-smoking programs.

CEO Tim Kilgallon is quoted as saying “Tobacco treatment is the low-hanging fruit in health-care cost savings.” The same quote appears under Mr. Kilgallon’s photo in the print edition of the paper.

I know exactly what Tim Kilgallon means, and I like the expression “low-hanging fruit.” Many times in my career I have benefited from building success through the “low-hanging fruit” of easy achievements, things within easy reach.

But I have learned something about “low-hanging fruit”: many people don’t understand the expression. In my years of teaching business writing, I have often asked classes whether they know the meaning of the phrase. A few people always admit that they do not. Sometimes these people speak English as a second language (ESL) or a third or fourth.

So what are we business communicators to do? Should we avoid colorful figurative expressions to communicate with the greatest number of people? Or should we use them, knowing that we may leave many people, especially ESL speakers and writers, in the dark (so to speak)?

My rule is this: If it is essential that all readers understand the message, avoid figurative expressions and cultural allusions like these:

  • Do we have all our ducks in order?
  • The next task is a walk in the park.
  • It takes two to tango.
  • You have to listen to that still, small voice.
  • Have you checked with the usual suspects?

The revisions below, without figurative expressions or cultural allusions, sparkle less. But they are more formal and communicate more clearly:

  • Are we completely prepared?
  • The next task is easy.
  • If no one engages with him, nothing bad can happen.
  • You must listen to your inner voice, or conscience.
  • Have you checked with the people we usually consult?

As a writer, you have to decide whether to go for a 3-pointer, or play it from the inside. (That’s another example of writing that doesn’t reach around the world.) As always, write for your audience, whether global, local, or down the hall.

For tips on communicating with a wide audience, write to me for my article “Write for 1.4 Billion.” (The 1.4 billion figure comes from the billion people who speak English as a foreign language, and the 400,000,000 who speak it as a first language.)

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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.

2 comments on “Writing for the World”

  • I’m currently reading your observation–or to bluntly put it–your grammar class about the use of punctuation. I’m an English teacher and also a free-lance sales rep. The use af abbreviations will be my next English class. Thank you for everything you’re doing for us people of communication and language use specialists.

  • I am glad you are finding my “grammar class” helpful! Thank you for letting me know. If there are topics you want me to write about, just let me know.

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