It’s the way that you say it. Poor English is probably one of the most powerful and least suspected causes of lost business. It’s not just what you say, but the way that you say it. If it could be measured, the scale of the losses would be frightening.
Consider your own reaction to the often hilarious signs and notices you encounter abroad in hotels, brochures and shop windows. A card in the window of a Hong Kong tailor said, “Ladies may have a fit upstairs”, while a hotel in Paris advised you to “Leave your values at the front desk”. A sign in a foreign dry cleaners read, “Drop your trousers here for best results”.
Beyond these glaring howlers, have you ever read the instructions for filling out a tax return or some other official document? The individual words may be familiar, but the way they are combined may leave you gasping for air.
It does a business no good at all to use language in this way. Because English is the language of business, if you use it badly you will lose out. So let’s consider some of the ways in which language gets in the way of good communication.
One of the most common errors in letters goes like this: “As a valued customer, we would like to make you an offer.” I understand the intention, but the way it is written suggests that the valued customer is the writer. Here are two alternative ways to express the same idea correctly:
- As a valued customer, you are entitled to a special offer.
- Because you are a valued customer, I’d like to make you an offer.
Another error from the same stable is “between you and I” or some version of that. For example, “It appeals to you and I” should be “It appeals to you and me”. When you reverse the words You and I, or when you leave out You altogether, you can hear how wrong it sounds to say “It appeals to I”.
Speaking in riddles
The English have a tendency to speak and write in metaphors, which are not always understood by those from other countries. A piece in The Guardian about Jonny Wilkinson once had this: “He seems perpetually to glow. It’s as though Jonny is perpetually bathed in the golden light of a late summer afternoon.” It’s attractive and poetic, and fine in some contexts, but worth avoiding in business.
Another source of confusion is the use of negatives. An American company was negotiating a textile deal with a Japanese firm. Towards the end of the negotiations, the Japanese chief negotiator brought his team to run through a check list of agreements with his American counterpart. As he raised each point, the American answered, “No problem.”
The Japanese negotiator became increasingly tense and eventually closed his notebook, stood up and left the room. Aghast, the American said, “What happened? Why did he leave?” The Japanese No. 2 said, “We are very disappointed that all the points we had agreed are now not agreed.”
The American had said “(There is) no problem”, but the Japanese had heard, “No. (There is a) problem.” That’s the danger of using a negative form of words to express a positive idea.
A job ad in The Times had this:
Over the past two years we have turned our business around and restored it to a sound financial and operational position, investing in our infrastructure and people, and greatly improving the service experience of … customers.
Another ad in the same paper had this:
The Council is the CC’s strategic management Board, responsible for establishing the overall strategic direction of the Commission, as well as ensuring high standards of governance and efficient discharge of the CC’s statutory functions.
With a little effort it is possible to work out what is meant, but why does it have to use language that is not immediately clear?
Here’s a simple rule of thumb for anything you are writing: let the reader understand what it’s about in 3 seconds or less.
Consider how you treat emails. How do you decide whether to read or discard the many emails that flood into your Inbox every day?
Typically, I get over 200 a day. And because I am out and about, I also receive them on my iPhone. I cannot afford much time to go through emails and vet them, so I check and clear several times a day. Most emails get about one second of my time before they are deleted. Who sent it, and what is it about? That’s all I need to know before I read or delete it.
Now, what if one of those emails came from you?
On my iPhone the subject line is very short, so the first TWO WORDS must be attractive. If I then open the email, I want to know immediately what it’s about. I look for three things:
- the full subject line (is it spam?)
- how I am addressed (got my name right?)
- the opening sentence (what’s the offer?)
Three things in three seconds. Only then will I consider reading the email. And even then I skim read. So it is vitally important to get to the point.
Leonard Bernstein wrote the music for My Fair Lady. At the height of his fame, a young man approached him with an idea for a new musical. “Write it on the back of your business card,” said Bernstein. The young man protested, “I couldn’t possibly fit it on the back of my card!”
“Then,” said Bernstein, “it isn’t ready.” So get to the point quickly.
Remember, when you venture into print you will be judged by a critical audience. So write as you would speak to someone you respect. And then get a good writer to cast an eye over it and correct the most glaring errors.
Be direct, get to the point early, and don’t let anything get in the way of your enthusiasm.