The Business Value of Excellent English

Yesterday a colleague asked me to comment on a business proposal. When I’m asked to do this, I endeavour to focus on the business argument and how persuasive it appears to be. I am usually also drawn to comment on aspects of grammar and style or expression. 

Lately I’ve hesitated to do that, because I’ve often found that when people ask for comments they really mean they want to enlist you as a supporter and asking for comments is a way of engaging your interest. They can become quite defensive if you suggest changes to the way they have expressed themselves in the document, because that wasn’t what they *really* wanted!

I can also be sensitive to criticism of *my* prose style, but on balance I would much prefer that friends or colleagues gave me a critique, rather than my finding out the hard way, from the market, that I could have done better. The only thing worse is to never find out and keep repeating the mistakes! 

The fact is, I see the business value of excellent English, written and spoken, as a fairly self-evident ‘given’.

Now I acknowledge that my attitude is almost certainly due in part to two facts: a) my parents – and various relatives – were school teachers; and b) I was a school teacher – and an English and History teacher at that! So sometimes I have been inclined to be pedantic, which comes from an Italian word pedante for ‘teacher’ and which the online defines as: Characterized by a narrow, often ostentatious concern for book learning and formal rules: a pedantic attention to details.

But my teaching days are long gone and I now have years of experience in the public service and in business, which has tended to make my English expression more practical and down to earth than it used to be.

I’ve found consistently over the years that striving for excellence (not pedantry) in English expression has never been a waste of time and has often meant that I achieved my communication goals faster than if I had been careless about what was being stated and how it was being phrased.

I do take some pride in my knowledge of English and its subtleties but I also accept that there are plenty of people with deeper knowledge and better skills than mine. There is also, always, room for improvement. However capable I have been able to become about expressing myself in written English, I know that there are always going to be people who can take apart what I write and show me how I could do it better. Fortunately I’ve met a few of those and they’ve done just that. If I want to get something really right I get a journalist friend to go through it – he usually savages it, but for the better. I got over my wounded pride about that long ago.

Part of the exercise in any sort of a bid document or pitch document is not to thoughtlessly provide meaningless distractions by way of poor grammar or clumsy style. Excellence in expression allows your reader to concentrate on what you want them to concentrate on. That’s where people who don’t understand punctuation and grammar, for example, get it wrong when they say all that ‘grammar and style stuff’ doesn’t matter. It could matter to your reader subconsciously and even consciously. If it does, you are making it harder for him or her to believe that you are thorough and rigorous enough to provide them with consistently excellent service or with products of relentlessly consistent high quality.

That doesn’t mean that our English expression should be flowery and full of big words. Far from it. Plain English is in short supply and is appreciated by time-strapped business people.

Bullet points are also good. A client of mine once told me he liked my reports but as he and his colleagues in the executive group were mostly engineers, it would be good if I could use more bullet points. I learnt to do bullet points, with the result that:

  • I could get my arguments across more effectively
  • People appreciated my taking the trouble to change the format of my reports
  • The client kept paying me!

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