"The pen is mightier than the sword."
It’s probably one of those words-as-weapons quotes that we’ve all heard at least once or twice. It’s attributed to English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton from his 1839 play Richelieu; Or the Conspiracy. It has subsequently been used many times as a school motto, dialogue in films, and a slogan in marketing campaigns. Bulwer-Lytton coined the phrase in that form, although there may have been many precursors that used a similar metaphor. OK, technically it’s a metonym, not a metaphor, but I’m neither here to argue literary attribution nor linguistics.
Or maybe I am. We often assume that what we say or write is clear, and is understood by the listener or reader as we intended. Yet the science of language can be as challenging and complex as any other – biology, chemistry, physics – subjects in which I would certainly not claim any substantial knowledge beyond a passing grade in high school. And while these subjects certainly have an impact on my day-to-day life, I don’t really pay much attention to them, at least not in the same way I pay attention to language.
You know what I mean, right?
As business analysts, the ability to capture and communicate ideas, rules, and requirements is crucial to what we do. Sure, that stuff that goes on between input and output (the analytical thinking) is important. But it’s meaningless if we have no means of that taking all that thinking and transforming it into something that can be understood by others.
And that’s where the effective use of language comes into play – it can literally mean the difference between success and failure. How many good ideas have been abandoned or ignored because they couldn’t be well articulated? Is it fair to assume and expect that the receiver of our information will be able to sift through our words to find that nugget of brilliance?
While the receiver certainly has to be willing to be engaged, it’s not an assumption on which I would stake my career.
No, I don’t know what you mean.
In a previous life, I was the recipient of many business cases seeking funding (I’m talking six and seven plus figure amounts), and I was frequently disappointed by their lack of clarity. Some were like epic literature, full of grand prose and subtle meaning; others were as thin and implausible as a cheap detective novel. And while both of these styles have their place, neither is fitting to a business case. I firmly believe that many a bad idea has been funded because someone knew how to use language to dress it up into something more.
The point is – have a point and make it clear.
So how do you know when you’re being clear? Obviously, there’s no magic bullet.
- There are many good, online sources on how to structure effective communications (check out www.plainlanguagenetwork.org).
- If you’re using Microsoft Word, there are readability statistics available as part of the Spelling & Grammar feature (admittedly, I’m not always a fan of Word’s suggestions, but they’re not all bad).
- Ask someone else to proofread your document; besides spelling and grammar, this is often a valuable way to see if you’ve made too many assumptions or leaps in logic.
I’m not saying you need to be a linguist, but choose your words with care and purpose; you’re more likely to make your point and have it understood as you intended.
As always, if you have any thoughts, questions or comments, feel free to get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.