Many 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 un-ring a bell. Once you’ve called someone stupid, even in jest, you can’t unsay it. Those who have been called that 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 my “Brush Up on Your Business Writing Skills” workshop, I often refer to the KISS principle — my version of it, anyway. Many business professionals — letter writers, memo writers, bloggers — write too many words, and they use too many BIG words, perhaps thinking they’ll look smart.
Sad to say, those approaches don’t work well for most readers. No one wants to wade through our version of War and Peace, or feel dumb because they’re not sure what a word means; there are too many other articles to read and things to do, right?
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, and no: This doesn’t mean every sentence should be that. It’s just an average.
If you’re writing something highly technical, especially to non-technical readers, the number should drop down to about 12.
You can check this in Word if you have the grammar check enabled, which I think we all do. 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? And why would you want your readers to have to?
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.
All in all, I love writing, although it does have its limitations. Even with formatting (bold / underline / color / fonts / emojis), 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.
Keep It Short (and) Simple.