The KISS Principle — My Way

fishMany of us know the KISS acronym, which is too often used with these words: Keep It Simple, Stupid. You’ve heard it or seen it, right?

Faithful readers of my blogs know how much I dislike hurtful language, and “stupid” is in that league. It’s impossible to unring a bell. Once you’ve called someone stupid, even in jest, you can’t unsay it. Once someone has been called that, he or she can’t unhear it. Nothing good comes of it, not even if we “apologize” and say we were only kidding. Yeah. No. It still hurts.

When I teach business writing, I often refer to the KISS acronym, but I change it a  bit. Too many business professionals — letter writers, memo writers, bloggers — write too many words. They use too many BIG words, perhaps thinking they’ll look smart.

Sad to say, those approaches don’t work well for most readers. So here are just three ideas to help you write more polished and professional business documents, all according to my version of the KISS Principle.

1. Think about your reader(s).
If you’re writing something to just one person, take a moment and think:
a.  What does he or she even know about the topic?
b.  What sort of tone would be right?
c.  Does the document need to be more or less formal?
d.  What do you want the reader to do after reading your document? Have you been clear about that?

If you’re writing to a group, think of what the members have in common that can help you craft your message.
a.  If they’re all CPAs or engineers, for example, they’re very likely detail-
oriented (we sure hope so!), so you would want to double-check all your
facts (maybe triple-check them).
b.  If they’re all nurses or other caregivers, they’re likely used to dealing with
emotions, so you wouldn’t want to come across as cold and uncaring.

2. Trim your sentences! The average number of words per sentence should be about 17 for regular material; if you’re writing something highly technical, the number should drop by two or three words. (No, this does not mean each sentence should be 17 words. It’s just an average.)

You can check this in Word; but you also have to have the grammar check enabled (at least I do in Office 2013). You’re looking for an eighth-grade reading level, more or less, for most ordinary writing. For more information on this, check out this Flesch-Kincaid link.

3. Use regular words that are in everyday use. You can obviously look up words in a dictionary or thesaurus, but why would you? Your goal in business writing — and probably in most writing — should be clarity. Big words usually just get in the way of great communication. I am not saying “dumb it down,” but I am saying write as you might speak. If you wouldn’t ever use “utilize” when speaking, you don’t need to use it in writing.

I love writing, but writing has its limitations. Other than formatting (bold / underline / color / fonts), we can’t always tell what the writer means by just the words that are used. I much prefer face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice communication when it’s possible, but if we must write, let’s use my KISS Principle as often as we can: