We tend to think of translation as a language thing. Translators help us understand what someone is saying in their native tongue. Without their help, all we hear is noise.
Business writing shouldn’t need translating in quite the same way. But all too often it is put together in a way that makes it almost impenetrable. The most common reasons for this are:
Technical people writing in a technical way
An engineer has to write a paper requesting budget for a pedestrian bridge over a railway. She sets out the type of material she requires, the way the bridge will be supported and the time it will take to build. She includes tables evidencing her findings. What she excludes is the reason the bridge needs to be built in the first place – it will enable the closure of a level crossing that has led to three fatalities in recent years. She needs to translate the mechanics of the job into a benefit to the railway.
Business writing in a bubble
We tend to work alongside likeminded people. People who ‘get’ our jargon, understand our acronyms and share our thought processes. This can leave people outside the bubble completely baffled. The coroner reporting on the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London suggested that delays were caused because the emergency services couldn’t immediately understand language being used within the transport system.
Too much focus on the ‘what’
Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home’ quotes Alexnader Bell’s explanation of his famous invention:
“The telephone may be briefly described as an electrical contrivance for reproducing in different places the tones and articulations of a speaker’s voice so that conversations can be carried on by word of mouth between persons in different rooms, in different street or in different towns. The great advantage it possesses over every other form of electrical apparatus is that it requires no skill to operate the instrument.“
Arguably: “The telephone allows you simply to speak to someone in a different place” would have done the job!
You work hard, you gain your qualifications, you do your research and you have a paper to write. So why not demonstrate just how brilliant you are to the powers that be?
The problem is that someone who finds it hard to understand your work won’t necessarily be impressed with all the technical information and the long words. This is common sense rather than technical business writing consultancy, but if you’d feel awkward explaining your work to a friend in the pub in this way, it’s probably not a good idea to write like it.
Your job is to know your stuff and then to translate it into words that your reader can understand.
Writing before planning
There’s a huge temptation to start a business writing project by writing! By ‘getting something down’ to get the juices flowing and seeing where they get you.
My strong advice is that this causes more trouble than it solves. Editing a complex piece of writing can take considerably more time than writing it from scratch. But only if you know exactly what you want to say.
If you write a draft without a ‘key takeaway message’ in mind, it’s imposible to write clean, punchy text. Likewise, if you haven’t mapped-out your argument before writing it, you’ll keep changing direction and changing the text as you go.
Clear writing is almost inevitably a result of clear thinking. Which means planning how to make your thoughts relevant first, then stepping away before you start typing.
So, ‘translating’ your business writing means:
- Putting your reader first
- Working out what’s relevant to them
- Understanding what they need to take away from your work
- Planning a structure to fit
- Dropping your ‘evidence’ into that structure
- Then focusing on writing in language they will get
- Keeping it simple, brief and in an appropriate tone
- Checking it by imaging a friend from another walk of life reading it and editing anything they wouldn’t understand!