You don’t have to write like a businessperson just because you cover business

April 8, 2011

I’m already trying to edit myself. That headline is off. It should say, “You should not write like a businessperson just because you cover business.”

You often might think to yourself, upon reading my blog posts, “yes, of course, Robert. Tell us something that we don’t know.” But remember this: when you read our stories, you often see a swamp of business jargon. Some reporters where we work have told me that they read our stories and then visit the New York Times website to find out what’s really going on because they can’t penetrate the business talk. Some endorsement.

One response I hear from the reporters I work with is that our clients are businesspeople. They know what a shale play is. They know what go-shop windows are. They know what a blockbuster drug is.

Indeed some of them do. But here is a list of reasons why that is no excuse to write in their language:

- Businesspeople don’t want to be bored by reading the same words that they speak. They know they are bad writers. We are not businesspeople. We are paid to write and communicate well.

- We write for a wide base of financial clients. Perhaps one of them has not invested money in shale gas and oil fields before. Maybe he or she doesn’t know the jargon common to that business.

- Beyond our business clients, maybe someone’s mother or father invests in a company involved in this business. It’s not a stretch to think that they like information delivered to them with clarity when their money is at stake. We write for them too.

- Our use of business jargon often covers up an important, but embarrassing fact: we often are writing what the companies tell us, but we don’t understand it. It is no defense to say that you’re speaking to a particular audience and therefore using the jargon when what you’re really saying is that you have no idea what you’re writing about.

We write for the world, or at least we say we do. So write for it. That doesn’t just mean making sure that your Mozambique readers understand what you’re saying; it means making sure that PEOPLE understand. If you can’t write a business story for a mass audience, you should consider writing white papers at an industry research firm or a PR outfit instead.

Comments

This post is music to my ears, a public service even. I lost count of the number of times I heard the argument: “but our readers are specialists, THEY understand.” As Robert says, the unspoken part of the sentence is often “… even if we don’t.”

My usual retort is to point to the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, two publications clearly aimed at (and appreciated by) business people. How is it that their articles are always understandable by lay people? Why do their writers go to great lengths to explain even relatively mundane business terms? More often than not, the Wall Street Journal explains the meaning of GDP — “the broad measure of the value of goods and services produced by the economy.” It never hurts.

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