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Executives Are Just Another Audience

Last week at the end of a business writing class in California, one of the attendees mentioned something he had learned in class: Executives are just another audience.

Earlier he had been concerned about how to impress executives. He was using sophisticated language and long, complex sentences to come across intelligently. And he was skeptical about my suggestion that executives would be more impressed with his use of the simplest precise word in the shortest clear sentences that conveyed his brilliant ideas.

But executives are just another audience. Like other business readers, they want great ideas and plans presented clearly, concisely, and simply. Unnecessary complexity gets in the way of the message, for them as for people at every organizational level.

The best book I have read on this topic is Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, by Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky, published in 2005. The book shares examples from famous executives, politicians, and others that illustrate terrible and terrific writing.

As an example of terrific writing, the authors offer Jack Welch's crisp "We will be number one or two in every business we're in, or we will fix it, close it or sell it," a sentence written at an 8th grade level. But what if the former CEO of General Electric had instead written the snoozer below at the 21st grade level? Would we remember it–and him?

"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 related to strategic investments, acquisitions, or strategic execution. . . . " (From Why Business People Speak Like Idiots)

Clarity, conciseness, and simplicity–that's what we want in the business messages and documents we read. And that's what executives want too.

If you have a thought or a story about writing for executives, please share it.

Lynn
Syntax Training

P.S. Do you want to write better? The May 10 Better Business Writing class near Seattle has just 8 seats available. Find out more.

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
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. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

12 comments on “Executives Are Just Another Audience”

  • I completely agree with the post! I am currently a TA for a business writing course and we always emphasize clear, concise writing. The students always seem to get hung up on writing lengthy sentences and forget that business writing is about clarity. I’m glad that you also addressed that no matter what the level of audience, you always want to be clear and to the point. No one wants to read lengthy and flowery sentences in the business world!

  • I believe overuse/abuse of “big” words and complex constructions generally comes from insecurity. Perhaps we assume those in our audience are more intelligent than we are, or we might even question our own fitness for the position we hold. We think more complicated language makes us sound smarter, somehow.

    I try to convey to my (college) students: in business communications, it’s not about you; it’s about the message. Your audience should be able to listen to what you’re saying without having to work at understanding it.

    And if the message does come through clearly, you get the bonus of sounding very smart, indeed!

  • Hello, Jennifer. It is good to know that you emphasize clarity and conciseness in your course.

    I hope your courses reach many students. Often people in my writing classes have not taken a business writing course, so the ideas about conciseness and simplicity are new to them.

    Thanks for commenting.

    Lynn

  • Kelly, your message to your college students sounds perfect.

    Lack of information is another problem for writers. I could not say that the man I mentioned above is insecure, but I do know he was uninformed about the needs of his audience.

    Keep up the good work!

    Lynn

  • Absolutely agreed. Executives are busy people. They want to scan a document, get its gist, locate key supporting points, and come to a decision–not wade through dense, highfalutin, obfuscatory text. It’s best to impress by ideas, not language.

    My own college experience bore this out. An English Literature major, early on I took a technical writing course, figuring it might help with proofreading. In the end, the course so thoroughly sold the idea of straightforward writing that I began applying it even to literature courses, avoiding “highbrow” language. The result: a BA, magna cum laude, with a couple of other honors distinctions.

    Turns out that even English Literature professors prefer to read clear, straightforward texts.

  • Hi, Lester. Your first paragraph powerfully communicates what executives want. I like your personal story too, especially your conclusion about the preference of English lit professors.

    Thanks for taking the time to share.

    Lynn

  • Great post, Lynn. Your rewrite of Jack Welch’s quote was spot on, but I bet you had to work at coming up with such a good “bad” example. After all, your entire career has been all about writing well. You created the perfect example to illustrate how engaging concise writing can be.

  • Hi, Lynda. I am glad you liked the rewrite. I like it too, but I can’t take the credit. It is from “Why Business People Speak Like Idiots.”

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    Lynn

  • Thank you for another informative business writing blog post. As freelance business writers, we have dealt with this problem

    A few years ago we wrote a set of articles about investing in real estate for a mortgage broker. The articles were simple and concise. The client didn’t like the writing and said it was too simple for “sophisticated investors”. Like many business people, he believes that complicated business writing is more effective for communicating with “sophisticated” readers.

    Regards,

    Michael at Word Nerds

  • Hi, Lynn.

    Here’s another delightful article supporting straightforward writing: Jargon To Jabberwocky: 3 Books On Writing Well, NPR, http://ow.ly/aodC3

    Add to that the U.S. government’s own PLAIN Writing initiative, and I’d say the tides are turning.

    Les

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