Note to Executives: Nobody Wants to Read Your Stuff

Four keys to making your written
content more pleasant than a root canal

Imagine …

You’re exhausted from a long day at work. But now at last, you’re home.

So you kick off your shoes, pour your favorite beverage and settle into a comfortable chair. And you can’t help but smile as you begin reading … the latest company memo from the vice president.

No?

Well, why not?

The truth is, there are some things we only read when we have to. That includes anything work-related.  Not just because it’s about work. But because, most of the time, it’s also excruciatingly boring.

When we’re reading something we really don’t want to, we tend to skim, to get through it as fast as possible. That makes us likely to miss important things.

We may also be tempted to avoid reading it altogether. Haven’t you ever ignored an important email for days at a time—just because you didn’t want to deal with it? Or haven’t you relegated an urgent document to your Big Stack of Unread Papers—telling yourself you’ll get to it soon (but knowing you won’t)?

That’s human nature. We tend to avoid unpleasant experiences as long as possible. And there’s no app, technique, or office policy yet devised that can override human nature.

So if your job requires you to communicate with colleagues or subordinates, here’s your challenge: to make your notes, emails, announcements, memos and proposals more pleasant and attractive—so that people will, you know, actually read them.

Here are four tips to get you there:

  1. Keep it short. Start by writing everything that’s on your mind. Then, go back and cut it down. Get rid of every unnecessary word.

Use short paragraphs. Like this one.

Short sentences too.  

Remember, before they read it, they have to look at it. And if what they see is a massive, unbroken wall of text, they’re likely to avoid it.

  1. Make it clear. This can be trickier than it seems. You know what you’re thinking, but your thoughts may not make it onto the page. Go back and re-read what you wrote. Is there any way it could be misinterpreted? Is it cluttered with content that’s off-topic? Is there a clearer, simpler way to say what you mean?

There’s an old saying: Good writing is rewriting.  Professional writers know this and practice it. You should too.

Remember, you really only have two things to convey: what you want them to know, and what you want them to do. Make sure you spell both of those out in unmistakable terms. Everything else is fluff.

  1. Write like a human. Imagine hearing this from your spouse or partner:

"The necessity of a visit to a place of commerce has been determined and will commence forthwith. A variety of grocery items and consumer goods will be purchased. Therefore, requests for additional purchases will be considered at this time."

You’d think it was a joke. Here’s another way of saying the same thing:

"I’m going to the market to get a few things. Want anything?"

That’s how real people talk. But for some reason, many of us abandon normal language when it comes to business. We think our words will carry more weight if they’re big and official-sounding.

The opposite is true. If you write in a simple, personal, even intimate way, your readers will be more likely to lean in and pay attention.

  1. Apply the Golden Rule. Once you’ve finished your masterpiece, take another look at it. Imagine it showing up at your desk or inbox. Is this something you’d enjoy reading? If not, why subject others to it? Unless you’re using the workplace to vent your sadistic impulses, the Golden Rule is still a good guideline: Treat others the way you’d want to be treated.

Apply these four principles in your writing—and people will look forward to reading it.

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