business writing

For 2013: Think a bit more, say a lot less

January 8, 2013: 10:50 AM ET

You may be dealing with people who believe it's wiser to overstuff communications than be accused of having left something out. That instinct may do more harm than good.130108035353-making-a-list-gallery-vertical

By Megan Hustad

FORTUNE -- Jeff Bezos insists on complete sentences. In November, the writer Ben Casnocha wrote about how the Amazon (AMZN) CEO doesn't allow his executive team to hand him memos dotted with bullet points. Instead, Bezos demands correctly punctuated sentences that live in paragraphs and defy easy scanning. The idea is that having to spell your idea out in full will improve it.

"By demanding his team write everything out," Casnocha remarked, "he makes them consider all aspects of an idea to make it more durable for years to come." In Fortune's recent profile of Bezos, which inspired Casnocha's post, Bezos said, "There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking."

At first glance, this rule is appealing. But are complete sentences really a fix for those bulleted lists that essentially clump together vaguely smart-sounding noun phrases? A lot of what passes for persuasive writing in business communication today are pile-ups of abstract concepts strung together with what our seventh-grade English teachers called "helping verbs," and plenty of grammatically correct sentences are still mystifying. For example:

In order to accomplish a best-in-market customer experience, instill a differentiated skill-set, and bring the relevant institutional knowledge, skills, and facilitation expertise in-house, we have identified five mission-critical goals.

Or this one, which also recently landed in my Inbox:

Designers work to envision and create spaces, systems, languages, tools and infrastructure that afford specific kinds of relationships and predispositions towards each other and our world.

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Such sentences mainly give us a feeling for what they're about. The topic may be obvious, but a close reading prompts an urge to question whether it could have been said with fewer words and less grandstanding. It took me a while to realize that these complete sentences were basically gussied-up laundry lists. There may be a good reason to house all those concepts in the same sentence -- or not. It's often hard to tell how all of the sentence's parts relate to one another.

So, what if the problem isn't incomplete sentences but the fact that we are using lists to convey big, unwieldy ideas that lists aren't capable of communicating? We used to list items so we didn't have to think about them. (Do or buy a thing, cross it off the list, then throw the list away.) Lists were disposable by design.

Now, we use lists because we imagine our thoughts or abilities are too complex for one or two simple descriptors. In a recent blog post, Harvard Business Review contributor Greg McKeown noted an increase in the ranks of people who wouldn't pick one job title. This was understandable but not so smart, he argued:

The slightly painful truth is, at any one time there is only one piece of real estate we can "own" in another person's mind. People can't think of us as a project manager, professor, attorney, insurance agent, editor and entrepreneur all at exactly the same time. They may all be true about us, but people can only think of us as one thing first.

Give yourself six job titles -- LinkedIn and SEO trainers certainly encourage you to spread your bets that way -- but know that when humans, not robots, read your profile, they'll likely be overwhelmed.

Like feature creep in software, what we might call list creep is insidious. The intentions may be good but the effect underwhelms. The more sensitive I become to list creep, the more I worry we waste time talking past each other, perpetually tacking on one more "thing" and only making our intended meaning blurrier.

I asked Matthew E. May, author of The Laws of Subtraction, where the compulsion to stuff multiple ideas into a single sentence comes from. He faulted a lack of self-control. "Without the discipline, instinct takes over," he says. "Our hardwired instinct is to add, as slack resources make us feel safe."

In competitive work situations, overstuffing your communications often seems like a safer bet than running the risk of leaving something out. But that instinct for self-preservation may be doing more harm than good, says May.

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"The ironic thing is that the world's attention span is shrinking, so we're going to have to do the work if we want to stay relevant. Twitter and texting may be inadvertently making us better editors. We just need to apply that discipline to our longer formats."

If you're worried that you've succumbed to list creep, one way to halt your slide into incoherence is to check your memos for noun:verb ratio. (A 10:4 ratio like the one above implies a lot of conversation, not enough action.)

May recommends setting predetermined limits, even if they strike some colleagues as arbitrary. "I try to follow the rule of three. I think that's the most people can retain. The ideal is one, of course."

A routine revision process also helps. May says he scans his paragraphs for every instance of the word "and." Then he tries -- "not always successfully," he adds -- to eliminate what follows each "and." Hot and sticky becomes hot, period.

Deciding what can go unmentioned is hard work. It involves, as Bezos suggested, clear thinking. It means assessing the importance of each element in isolation and as part of the whole.

It also means getting a sense for how heavy -- literally -- a document should be, writes blogger Christopher Rife, who recalls witnessing a strange ritual upon arriving for work in Hollywood. "The first thing a producer or reader would do with a script, instinctively, was to pick it up and 'weigh' it. Literally weigh it."

Too heavy? "It ha[d] little chance of being read with care or read at all," Rife writes.

There will always be exceptions. But it's tempting to recommend that if you can cross it off your list, you probably should.

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