Information is for Idiots

David Mamet at the premiere of Red Belt at the...
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The reason most business writing is boring is that it demands so little of the reader. That is, it settles for merely conveying information.

That’s fine, I suppose, if you’re writing an instruction manual (but even those could use a little more humor and drama).

The problem is captured  in David Mamet’s duly famous memo to the writing staff of The Unit. I quote it often because it’s full of excellent advice for writers and communicators of every kind.

Here is what he has to say in his ALL CAPS screed about information (note: “penguins” = network suits):

OUR FRIENDS, THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE…ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE: THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

That is, every scene should drive the narrative forward. You do that by presenting a conflict that forces the character to make a choice. Otherwise, it’s just exposition, and exposition is boring.

In business writing, merely passing along information is a weak choice and a squandered opportunity. Communication can and should do more. The best and most simple formula I’ve found is to ask these three questions of every speech, email, memo or other communication:

  • What do we want the audience to know?
  • What do we want them to feel?
  • What do we want them to do?

The first one is the easiest part. That’s the information, the data. Practically any monkey can do that.

The second involves motivation. How are we going to inspire and move them? What are the beliefs, fears, ambitions, memories, heritage and touchstones we can appeal to to create a connection that grabs their hearts, instead of just their minds?

The third is about action. Do we want them to buy our product? Click on our link? Set up a meeting? Cut costs? Deliver faster?

If you agree, here’s what you can do. Demand more of yourself and your writing. Create communications that touch and move people. Fight the powers-that-be who strip all the drama and excitement from your writing. Make your words perform.

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