Marketing and communications professionals know how to write well. However, sometimes you struggle to get your firm's executives to recognize the power of good writing. You edit their text, but the execs put the jargon and longwinded, indirect language back in. I have seven tips for how to win over your subject-matter experts.
1. Use the Oracle of Omaha
When I push for plain language, sometimes my asset manager clients say they're worried they'll be seen as "dumb." That's not justified.
I tell them to look at Warren Buffett. His annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway's shareholders relies heavily on plain language. Yet the report is widely discussed by sophisticated financial professionals. I've never heard anyone call Warren Buffet dumb because of the way he writes.
Buffett writes like you imagine a trustworthy person would talk. For example, "A number of good things happened last year, but let's first get the bad news out of the way," he says on page 3 of his 2012 shareholder letter (PDF). He admits that the firm's 2012 gains were "subpar." He says it's even possible that the firm may lose its record of consistently outperforming the Standard & Poor's 500 Index over consecutive five-year periods.
It's easy to imagine a different company burying the bad news at the bottom of the letter or even in the footnotes. Other companies surely would have used stuffier language to convey such news.
Buffett's style works for various reasons:
- A plainspoken style instills trust in investors. For example, its 2010 full-service investor survey spurred J.D. Power and Associates to recommend boosting investor trust with methods that include honest communication about investment performance and plain explanations for fees and commissions, according to "Study: Why focus on people, not profits, increases investor trust." On a similar note, "investors are no longer impressed with jargon. They want to understand their investments without learning the definitions to unfamiliar words," according to "New Word Order," (PDF) part of the Invesco White Paper Series. Moreover, "when Invesco tested the phrase 'institutional-quality money management,' one focus-group member asked why prison inmates were handling the money," according to an article in The Wall Street Journal.
- The directness of Buffett's writing saves time for readers. Everybody's busy. They can save time by reading data-supported statements like this: "Our insurance operations shot the lights out last year. While giving Berkshire $73 billion of free money to invest, they also delivered a $1.6 billion underwriting gain, the tenth consecutive year of profitable underwriting." Though a securities analyst and a portfolio manager might want to dig into the annual report for more details, these sentences give them a quick idea of what to seek.
- It's entertaining. Whether you're an investor, an analyst, or a random reader, you'll find something to make you smile in Buffett's reports, which are regularly discussed in articles such as The Wall Street Journal's "Warren Buffett's Annual Berkshire Letter: The Highlights."
I imagine that some industry experts would read Buffett even if he wrote terribly; his investment insights are respected. However, weak writing would limit his reach.