Business communication

No, business writing doesn't need to stink

March 30, 2012: 10:25 AM ET

Put something in plain language and if the basic idea is fatuous, its stupidity has nowhere to hide.

By Megan Hustad, contributor

FORTUNE -- It's hard to say exactly when I first decided that everyone in business should study the art of copywriting, but it was probably upon being presented with yet another PowerPoint deck four times as long as it needed to be and wholly unpersuasive. The rhetorical power of these documents are typically so underwhelming that I began to wonder if anyone had plotted sales of Microsoft Office against the Dow Jones.

Browsing through The Copy Book: How Some of the Best Advertising Writers in the World Write Their Advertising convinced me. Released by art book publisher Taschen late last year, The Copy Book is an inadvertent how-to for crafting business communications. Lesson one: Keep it short.

This premium placed on brevity seems hypocritical when you first glance at the ads reproduced in the book. Many hark back to the age of long copy, when a full-page magazine ad might run to 400 words, or just over half the length of an average op-ed column. A great deal longer than a Tweet, in other words. But the copywriters' process for arriving at 400 words was so rigorous that one could argue it represented a higher valuation of the reader's time. (And by the time someone has Tweeted 18 times a day, well, there goes concision.)

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To a person, the copywriters quoted in the book stress that the process emerged because they lived in perpetual fear of losing their reader. Steve Hayden, creator of Apple's (AAPL) "1984" ad, remarked that the truth of an easily distracted, borderline hostile audience was drilled into him from his earliest days in the business: "Four percent of the readership will slog through 70% of body copy no matter how bad it is. Your job is to beat those odds."

They subjected the words to intense scrutiny and imagined an audience predisposed more toward contempt than admiration. Tony Brignull, former head of copywriting at Collett Dickenson Pearce, claims that if he had doubts about copy he was working on, he'd ask himself "would I walk up to a stranger at a drinks party and say these words to her? If she's interested, amused, engaged, I write on. If she starts looking over my shoulder or reaching for the peanuts I start again." Steve Harrison remarks in the book that a background in direct mail helped him understand the importance of hooking people from word one: "We set out to write headlines that elicited the response 'bloody hell, that's interesting, tell me more.'" (Lesson two: Be interesting.) More

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