- Historic Sites
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
For people who yearn to write memos that shine, even on uninspiring subjects, organizations such as the American Management Association offer workshops with titles like “Business English,” “Better Business English,” “Business Communication,” “Managerial Communication,” “Better Business and Managerial Communication,” and so on. Whatever the title, the promotional literature that advertises the workshop will announce that its purpose is to polish the “oral and written communication skills” of the participants. No one in business would pay a dime for a course that promised nothing more than to teach people how to speak and to write.
The language of modern business is a language of colorless jargon and mindnumbing abstraction. A “process-oriented” executive talks about “inputs,” “outputs,” and “throughputs.” A “product-oriented” executive explains that his industry is “labor-intensive” or “capitalintensive.” Accountants debate the merits of “FIFO” and “LIFO.” An executive with a taste for quantitative disciplines talks about “maximizing,” “minimizing,” “optimizing,” and “satisficing.” Chief executive officers spend their days “strategizing.”
Executives like this language: they think it sounds solid and professional. In fact, it does sound solid and professional. I have seen an entire audience mesmerized by the subtly paced repetition of the phrase “capital-intensive,” as if it were a mantra.
All over the country, in workshops and seminars, people in business are presented with lists of “action words” and urged to write in the active voice. This good advice is one of the reasons that the résumés of people in business all seem to sound the same. If a job applicant claims that he or she “designed, planned, organized, and implemented” a “multi-unit product distribution system for a major local enterprise,” the employer can be fairly sure that he’s looking at another managerial aspirant who delivered newspapers as a child. Language so strenuously polysyllabic is indeed a blunt instrument. I have received memos so swollen with managerial babble that they struck me as the literary equivalent of assault with a deadly weapon.
I have received memos so swollen with managerial babble that they struck me as the literary equivalent of assault with a deadly weapon.
Sometimes people in business fall in love with their Dictaphones, and communication gets out of hand. I have received memos that begin, “This is to let you know that we plan to schedule a meeting,” and “This is to let you know that we plan to get in touch with you”—as if I could not wait for the plan to happen.
When communication is very important, the people who run American business hire professionals, who charge high fees for providing prose that is immensely readable—so readable, in fact, that it might be viewed as insulting. For instance, here are “sentences” from a full-page advertisement that CIGNA placed in the Wall Street Journal on the day I happen to be writing this article: “Or clean waste disposal.” “Or harmless emissions.” “With their transport.” “Their storage.” “And disposal.” “Or doesn’t.” “Not because they didn’t care.” “Not to mention, on any human population risk.” “Which is exactly what we provide at CIGNA.”
Ten of the twenty-six “sentences” in the ad are such fragments. But I don’t mean to pick on CIGNA. Turning a couple of pages, I find that General Electric has placed an ad in which thirteen of twenty-five sentences are fragments.
Advertising copy may not be the best writing now being produced in the United States, but it almost certainly is the most expensive. A sentence like “And disposal” must survive the scrutiny of junior and senior copywriters, creative supervisors, account executives, and perhaps even a vice-president or two. The next time your eyes drift over the text of an advertisement, consider that the agency probably earned more for those few dozen words than Melville earned for writing Moby Dick .
The excesses of contemporary business writing bring me back to Cornelius Vanderbilt, who wrote not only my second-favorite business letter but also my favorite. In 1853, having worked since the age of twelve and having accumulated a fortune of eleven million dollars, the fifty-nine-year-old lion took the first vacation of his life: a grand tour of Europe in a steamship built especially for the voyage and “fitted up,” a contemporary newspaper reported, “with all that can tend to gratify the eye and minister to luxurious ease.” In Vanderbilt’s absence a pair of business associates, perhaps thinking that age had mellowed or success softened the commodore, took steps that challenged his interests, thus provoking a letter that read in its entirety:
You have undertaken to cheat me. I won’t sue you, for the law is too slow. I’ll ruin you.
Yours truly, Cornelius Vanderbilt
Not a word wasted. If anyone can offer a better example of solid business writing, I would like to see it.