THE PLAIN TEXT GAZETTE – Issue 8, September 2003
* We don’t like ’em skimpy: the need for sensible briefs
* Words We Hate: the list continues
Welcome to the back-to-school Plain Text Gazette. Despite the summer recess, there have been busy goings-on in business writing. June saw the release of Deloitte Consulting’s “Bullfighter”, a software package designed to ‘fight the bull’ in business writing. We were suspicious. A management consultancy at war with bullsh*t? Surely this would mean destroying their own business model?
Having taken a good look at the related website, we couldn’t resist posting this to the Guardian newspaper’s weblog:
“Witty it may be, but Bullfighter is done in the best traditions of management consultancy:
* It presents a well-worn theme as novelty
* It makes a vice out of something that its industry once presented as a virtue
* It only runs on Microsoft apps
* It doesn’t (despite protestations) represent what the firm does itself: check out this sentence from the DC website:
‘Moving from Build-to-Stock (a “push” model) to Build-to-Order (a “pull” model) can powerfully transform Order-to-Delivery processes, unlocking unrealized business along the value chain. Effecting this shift is best accomplished through a series of discrete steps that enhance capabilities and flexibility along both the demand and supply chains.’
Looks to me like they need to leverage improved comprehensibility on an enterprise scale.”
Or to put it differently, if you’re going to pull PR stunts like this, make sure you rewrite your entire website first.
Postscript: it may not be entirely surprising to learn that Deloitte is no longer associated with Bullfighter, which lives on here
Later in the summer — and on the ‘white hat’ side of the business writing debate — a Gazette subscriber pointed out that Edward Tufte, author of the acclaimed ‘Visual Display of Quantitative Information’ had weighed into the corporate writing debate with his ‘Cognitive Style of Powerpoint.’ Not a snappy title, but it’s an important pamphlet, illuminating the numerous reasons why slide presentations are a terrible way to communicate. Amongst many examples, Tufte reminds us that a small paper handout can carry the equivalent of 250 slides’ worth of information.
The paper is on sale at Tufte’s website and there’s a related opinion piece in Wired magazine. Alternatively, you could take a look at this brief and amusingly self-referential summary of it.
Before we forget, there’s been a minor tweak to the Plain Text website. Conscious that there are nuggets of writing advice buried in both the Gazette and our A-Z of Plain Text (as well as elsewhere on the web), we’ve brought these together under business writing ‘themes’ on a new writing resources page. Gazette subscribers may have read much of this stuff already. But if you or your colleagues need a page of resources to help with specific business writing issues, this is the one.
Anyway, on with this issue. The main thing that’s bothering us this time is briefs. Not the wearable kind, fortunately, but the information that writers need in order to produce the best result. We’ll take a look at what makes a good brief. Then we’ll take a brief pop at some more words we hate.
Keep it plain,
Despite our superior intelligence, the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out’ applies as much to business writers as it does to the computers for whom it was invented. Brief us inadequately and you won’t necessarily get rubbish; but you certainly won’t get what you want.
In our experience on both the client and agency side, the best briefs come from clients who know exactly what they want. And the very process of putting a brief together — for writing, PR, advertising or any aspect of the marketing mix — can be a good way of discovering any gaps in your strategy.
But what are the elements of a good brief, and how should a brief be delivered? Here’s the Plain Text view.
Five questions that make a sensible brief
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
1. What do you want and when do you want it?
Is it a website, a flyer, a brochure, or all three? If it’s a dreaded Powerpoint presentation, does it need notes? Should these be fully scripted or bulleted? Do you have wordcount limits? Style considerations? Mandatory things to include? When do you want the copy (*not* the finished object) by?
2. What’s the story?
Why are you doing this? Is it a new product? A keynote address? The updating of a website? What’s the background? The context?
3. Who’s it for?
Who’s the target audience? What are they like? What do they think?
4. What are your objectives?
What do you want this communication to do? What’s the *main message* you want to get over?
5. What supporting information do you have?
How are you going to pass on the information needed to complete the job? Detailed documents? Existing brochures? Or is it all in someone’s head?
If you can answer these five main questions, then you’re ready to brief a writer.
But before you do, think about how you’d like to deliver the brief. Not everyone likes writing all this stuff down. Ask many managerial types to fill in a scary-looking template and it will rapidly find its way to the bottom of their to-do list, or be delegated to someone who has to fill it in based on guesswork.
So give the client the option of briefing over the phone or face-to-face. This means the writer has the hard work of writing it up (so there’s a permanent, agreed record), but it takes much less of the client’s time and can play to everyone’s strengths.
Whichever way you do it, good briefing is worth the time and effort it takes.
Words We Hate: the list continues
Webinar, n, meaning: ‘a web-based seminar’
– – – –
It’s just ugly, isn’t it? And lazy, unnecessary and generally vile. You can imagine the intensity of the brainstorm surrounding its conception:
“Hmmm…we need to make the idea of sitting in front of a PC listening to a live Powerpoint presentation seem interesting. Let’s give it a name. Brad?” “Um, how about ‘web-based seminar’?” “Nah, too long.” “What about ‘web seminar’?” “Too boring.” “OK, how about ‘webinar’?” “Hmmm…maybe..” “Hey, what about ‘war’?” “No, too short and doesn’t look good on the page. Let’s stick with webinar…”
Leverage, v, meaning: ‘to exploit’
– – – –
We had no problem acceding to a subscriber’s request to include this one. Chambers dictionary does not contain a definition for ‘leverage’ used as a verb, except in the strict financial sense of the word. Enter the lovely phrase ‘leverage core competency’ into Google, though, and you’ll hit a rich seam of the ‘corporatese’ against which we constantly rail. What is really irksome about this word is not its laziness, but its euphemism. ‘Leverage’, in its business-speak context, really means ‘exploit’. Which itself means, benignly, ‘to turn or adapt to use’ or ‘to make gain out of’. So why don’t businesses say what they mean?
That’s all for September. Let us know what’s bugging you in the world of business writing and maybe we’ll wave the sword of satire at it next time.
Paul & Paul
© Plain Text Ltd 2003 all rights reserved