Post Top Ad

Actionable Writing

David Ogilvy was an advertising executive who is often credited as the father of the modern advertising industry.

He and his contemporaries, Bill Bernbach and Leo Burnett, were the original Mad Men.

In 1982 Ogilvy sent an internal memo simply and appropriately titled How to Write. You can find it in the 1986 "The Unpublished David Ogilvy." It contained ten tips for communicating in business. Here are just five of them:

Write the way you talk. Too many business people think that what your argument lacks in credibility you can make up for in syllables. This is otherwise called baffling them with B.S. If the thought you’re trying to express is good just write it. You’ll be convincing. If not, no amount of verbiage will help you.

Use short words, sentences and paragraphs. Whether I’m writing ad copy or something else, I always test the copy first to make sure that I use simple words over complex ones, split compound sentences and rarely run a paragraph more than two sentences.

Here’s a tip: If you hunt around you can find the Spelling and Grammar tool in Microsoft Word®. Hunt a little more and you can find the “Readability” tool within it that calculates how easy your stuff is to read.

It also calculates the grade level and the percentage of passive sentences.  Passivity is important because passive voice tends to take more words to express the same thought. It lacks the snap, crackle and pop of active voice. 

[For example, this post is written at a 6th grade reading level. Passive voice makes up six percent of the sentences.]

Find the Readability tool and use it.

Avoid jargon. It says to the reader “If you don’t know the secret code you shouldn’t be reading this.”

You want your copy to be as accessible as possible, not the key to the executive washroom.

Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do. The purpose of business writing is to spur your reader on to some action. If I want to read a story, I’ll pick up a novel. Tell me what you want me to do.

Ogilvy’s tenth tip on writing isn’t really a tip on writing at all. It’s advice on workplace relationships: If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.

A number of years ago a company called First Data Corporation was a client of ours. The president was a guy named Charlie Fote. Legend has it that back in pre-email days Fote got sick and tired of his people sending long memos to each other through inter-office mail.

Like most companies First Data used pre-printed official memo forms. Fote had the forms sent to the print shop where he ordered that they be cut down from 11 inches long to five and a half inches. Goodbye long, pointless, CYA memos.

Finally, one book I recommend for business leaders on this topic is "The Autobiography of General Ulysses S Grant: Memoirs of the Civil War." Grant's style was more 20thcentury than 19th.  His sentences were short, brief and to the point. This differed from the florid writing style prevalent at the time.

In his autobiography Grant writes that he developed this style over his years as a field officer. In the heat of battle, he didn’t have the luxury of big words and long sentences. He had to be quick and direct. Lives depended on it. 

Above all, as Ogilvy wrote a century later, his words had to inspire action.

This week, let’s all shoot for inspiring action in our readers!