Luckily, the KISS (Keep It Short & Simple) acronym can help keep you, and your readers, relatively sane.
We all know that business is becoming more complex by the day. But it’s a mistake to think that complex ideas need complicated means of expression.
Shorter documents, familiar words and concise sentences make your writing clearer. Clear writing is easier to read, and helps you get your message across with more focus and impact. It also indicates clear thinking.
Yet a lot of business people struggle to put KISS into practice. “It will make my writing sound dull and robotic” is a common protest. “My readers will be insulted if a dumb down my language” is another.
These concerns are understandable, but you can avoid them if you follow these five guidelines.
1. Use familiar words
Firstly, use words that your audience will understand. This may mean avoiding jargon – but not necessarily. If all your readers are lawyers, you probably don’t need to explain what an affidavit is. If they are all IT specialists, they will understand the term “USB”.
If you are writing a business case, your readers are likely to come from a variety of backgrounds and functions. Perhaps your divisional manager commissioned the report, but they will be influenced by other stakeholders – the finance, IT and support staff who may have to implement your proposal.
Whatever their level, function or average education level, few of them will appreciate a document written by someone who swallowed a thesaurus. Use familiar (not necessarily short) words – such as ‘try’ instead of ‘endeavour’ and ‘interpret’ rather than ‘construe’.
Secondly, prefer concrete terms to abstract ones – use ‘car’ instead of ‘mode of transport’ for example. Concrete terms are less ambiguous.
2. Short, but varied, sentences
Yes, shorter sentences are easier to understand. I recommend an average of 15-20 words, but you can still vary the sentence to give the language a natural flow. This paragraph is an example.
There are two main ways to shorten sentences; you can cut out unnecessary words, or you can break up complex and compound sentences (like this one) into two or more sentences.
“But if I use shorter sentences, won’t I have to write more words in total?” Maybe. The issue here is clarity over brevity – most people can understand a 15 or 20-word sentence in one go. Once that number goes over 30, most of us would have to read the sentence again.
So I suggest you vary your sentence length, but avoid going over 30 words, even if that means a slightly longer paragraph. It will be clearer. And you’re also less likely to have trouble with punctuation.
3. One idea per paragraph
This has always been a fundamental rule of writing, but I often see it broken when a writer considers a paragraph ‘too short’.
If you can sum up your idea in one sentence – great! I love one-line paragraphs – they are easier to read and show that the writer is confident with being concise. Nothing is more off-putting than half a page or more of unbroken text.
A good rule of thumb is to keep paragraphs under seven lines. You can usually break down a longer paragraph into shorter ones. Arguably this whole section could have been written as one, long paragraph about paragraphs!
4. Clearly laid out documents
What would you rather read – a half page report or 20 pages?
But it isn’t always that simple for the writer – you may have multiple audiences, all needing different information at varying levels of detail. How do you cope with that?
The answer is structure and navigation. For longer documents such as reports, bids and proposals, your readers won’t have to read every word. Your job is to make it easy for them to find the bits they need.
Consider a table of contents, an executive summary (1-2 pages), and appendices for the detail. The body of your report should be broken down into sections with clear headings and subheadings that summarize the content they contain.
Headings are hugely underestimated in business writing. For example, instead of a heading that says ‘Costs’, what is the point you are making about costs? ‘Pay-back in first year’ gets the key message across with much more impact. It is memorable, and will grab the attention of those stakeholders whose job it is to evaluate the investment.
5. Don’t be dull
It is true that many business documents benefit from being shorter and simpler. That doesn’t mean that they have to be dull and unimaginative. Business readers are human beings too, and you won’t make an impact with your writing if you bore them to death.
Rather than using stuffy, formal language to make your point, use figurative language, such as metaphors and similes, to bring it to life. You can also use quotes and illustrations to great effect when you use them appropriately – a graph or table can often summarize several pages of text.
Be careful though –these tools need to earn their place. Simply stuffing an occasional pie-chart in won’t sharpen your message if you can’t justify why it’s there.
In summary, KISS is a great way to think about your business writing – it’s about making every word count. Apply these guidelines and your language won’t get in the way of your message. That’s good for you, and for your business.