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As long as we’re talking about mentors (see Bob’s recent post here), I’ll to pay tribute to one of mine. More importantly, I hope to further one of the causes for which he had a burning passion – making all communications as clear and meaningful as possible.

My first mentor, John, had a few passions, including picking value stocks and, I found out much later, barbershop quartet  singing. But the one he practiced most – at work, anyway – was clear, concise business writing.

“I will now say something to you,” she said.

Here’s an example that crystallizes his approach. Before joining the b2b communications agency John owned, I worked for two years in a global PR firm, which produced many news releases on behalf of clients.

Every news release had one thing in common. They all began like this:

“[Name of client company] today announced [whatever it was announcing] …”

John had a different idea of how a news release should be written. He said a news release is an announcement in and of itself. It’s a way of announcing things. You have news, or at least something you want your target audience to know. Why not simply announce it rather than announce that you’re announcing it?

Here’s a recent bit of news from a company that excels at marketing athletic shoes:

Beaverton, Ore., (October 24, 2012) NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE) today announced that it has reached a definitive agreement to sell its Umbro affiliate brand to Iconix Brand Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ICON) for $225 million.

Now, using John’s red pen:

Beaverton, Ore., (October 24, 2012) NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE) today announced that it has reached a definitive agreement to sell its Umbro affiliate brand to Iconix Brand Group, Inc. (NASDAQ:ICON) for $225 million.

C’mon, NIKE, just do it. Don’t waste my time telling me that you’re announcing that you’re doing it. I’m getting fat waiting around.

Wave of words up to your eyeballs.

A minor point, you say. Well, that’s what the king of Atlantis said when the tiny ripple lapped over his sandal. If you’re willing to lard up your news releases with extraneous words that obfuscate or in any way detract from what you’re trying to say, how can you be trusted to effectively communicate with customers, prospects or employees in any capacity?

Everyone in business – let’s make that everyone – should work toward the goal John set for himself and his staff: simple, clear and effective communication.

But make no mistake: Concise writing is hard work. It’s far easier to present a rambling, incoherent thought than it is to think, write and edit … and edit some more. John spent at least as much time editing his writing as he did crafting his sentences and paragraphs in the first place.

An outstanding editor, he was a wonder to behold as he wielded his red pen, scissors and adhesive tape (yeah, this was a few years ago). My early written pieces would invariably come back cut up, reassembled and covered with exquisite outlines and arrows indicating transpositions of paragraphs, phrases and words. But it yielded powerful, effective writing that helped our clients.

Just do it.

The good news is you can use a computer to edit. But you have to dedicate yourself to the art and craft of editing. Just do it. Let’s reduce the number of words we use.

Here’s a way to practice – each and every time you see a news release that uses the phrase “today announced” (or its fraternal twin “announced today”), write a note to the company’s CEO demanding the head of his top “communicator.” Take time to review, edit and final proof it so it says exactly what you mean without one extra word. Send it off.

And sleep better knowing you’re helping realize my mentor John’s utopia.
photo credit: stonehouse_ via photopin cc

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