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Specific = Fresh

In the business writing classes I lead, attendees often talk about wanting to use fresh language. They are looking for new, fresh words to communicate their ideas.

Freshness is an apt goal. We can’t engage readers with stale writing. But we don’t have to use fresh words. Many of the old words we use every day can create vivid images that draw in readers. The secret is that we do this:

Be specific.

For example, at the beginning of classes, I often ask attendees to tell us something they enjoy in life. Most people mention things like this: my children, hiking, spending time outside, reading, travel. To get more of a sense of them, I might ask the reader "What do you like to read?" and the traveler "Where did you go on your last trip?" If I learn that individuals read biographies or last traveled to New Zealand, I become more engaged with them than if they like simply reading and travel. Likewise, when I learn their children are ages 2 months and 3 years, I know something I could not get from the general "I enjoy my children."

Last week when I asked what people enjoy in life, a woman said she enjoyed occasionally getting a good night’s sleep and going out wearing clothes that don’t have baby spit-up on them.

Bingo! Those words told me she has an infant, and her life is upside-down from what it was before the baby’s birth. She remembers the good old days of being able to sleep through the night and going out dressed immaculately. At least that is what I believe after hearing her brief introduction.

There’s nothing fresh about the words she used, except maybe "baby spit-up." But she shared something specific that painted a picture. She got my attention and my empathy. The stranger became familiar.

When you are trying to engage readers, think specific. Instead of describing the retreat as "rewarding," mention a specific reward. Rather than writing that the new system is "efficient," mention something users can do easily with the system that they couldn’t do before. Don’t say you are good at thinking on your feet–give an example that illustrates that trait.

I am a fan of fresh language. But to me, a specific image offers as much freshness as two words combined in a surprising way.

Don’t just tell me something. Tell me something specific. To me, it will be fresh.

Syntax Training

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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.