Is the Pen Still Mightier Than the Video Call? The Power of Good Business Writing

Board & management papers

3 min read

Hands up who misses a pithy memo, or a cogent and well-crafted briefing note? That may sound like an old-fashioned sentiment in a year that has been dominated by quickfire tech-enabled communications, but good formal writing can still clarify, engage, and illuminate in a way that ad-hoc video calls and WhatsApp group chats simply cannot.

Business writing — according to Bezos

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — no Luddite — certainly appreciates the value of the written word. He famously required his S Team — the firm’s 18 most senior managers — to prepare a precise six-page memo ahead of meetings. Meetings then began with 30 minutes’ silence whilst the memo was read and digested by all. “This is the weirdest meeting culture you’ll ever encounter,” he cheerfully admitted at the time.

With that in mind, the value of good writing should be at the top of the agenda as we emerge from pandemic restrictions. Recent research by Board Intelligence found that 85% of boards intend to continue meeting remotely at least some of the time post-Covid, with two-thirds planning to hold 50% or more of their board meetings virtually. To avoid Zoom burnout, and to make sure online meetings are worth the time we’ll spend in them, they need to have a clear objective — and we need to come prepared.

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This is a lot easier to achieve with concise, well-written briefing notes and tight agendas. But good writing requires discipline and focus. What am I trying to say, and to whom? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case? How do I counter objections? As Bezos noted, “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively-structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

The Amazonian-in-chief also recommends sense-checking early drafts with colleagues to avoid misunderstandings. Medium CEO Evan Williams recently sent what has become known as “the culture memo” to staff at the media website, ostensibly tackling damaging behaviour by some employees. “Repeated interactions that are nonconstructive, cast doubt, assume bad intent . . . or otherwise do not contribute to a positive environment . . . will not be tolerated,” he wrote. But many reportedly objected to the tone, and voted with their feet — staff churn tripled in the month after the memo was sent, according to TechCrunch.

Old school rules that still hold up today

Sadly Bezos was coy on exactly what makes a great memo. But you could do a lot worse than take a leaf out of essayist and author George Orwell’s book. Along with his dystopian classic 1984, he shared six rules for writing “clear and tight prose.”

  1. Avoid cliché — never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out without altering the meaning, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright brutal.

These guidelines won’t make you into the next Hillary Mantel but they might help you stave off Zoom fatigue and rediscover the contemplative rewards of writing a killer memo. What’s more, you don’t need to be a writer of Orwell’s stature to produce concise board papers. The Board Intelligence platform’s extensive library of templates, from executive summaries to performance reports, make it quicker for you to write papers that are half the size but deliver twice the impact. Request a demo to find out more.

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