David Ogilvy penned his infamous advice on writing on Sept. 7, 1982 in a memo to his employees.
His point of view still has relevance for anyone who touches business communications, not just the jingle jockeys and slogan makers.
Still, they could use a refresh for 2020. Toward this end, I’ve captured Ogilvy’s 10 tips with “springboards” into today’s business climate.
1. Read the Roman-Raphaelson book on writing. Read it three times.
The actual title of the book is “Writing that Works.” Right, it’s not exactly click bait. I wonder if that’s why Ogilvy chose to mention to the authors and not the title.
While I didn’t read the book three times, I did scan it uncovering passages such as:
- “You’re not likely to get the results you seek if your writing is murky, long-winded, bogged down by jargon and topsy-turvy in its order of thought.”
- “To get action from busy people, your writing must cut to the heart of the matter. It must require a minimum of time and effort on the reader’s part.”
This is like saying Walter White lost his moral compass.
Still, I found some shards of wisdom like one on the value of reading:
- “Most people who write well read a lot. They read many kinds of good writing, past and current. Good fiction, good essays, good history, good journalism. Reading gets the shapes and rhythms of good writing into your head.”
In fact, I think what Ogilvy meant is that anyone who writes for a living should become a student of writing. And given what’s going on in the world, most of us are finding we have a little more time on our hands to devote to reading. As for myself, I just finished “The Nickel Boys” by Colson Whitehead. If only I could write like Mr. Whitehead.b2b
2. Write the way you talk. Naturally.
This is a particularly tough challenge for the tech industry which feeds on a complexity drip.
I hark back to my high school English teacher, Mr. Harper. “Read aloud what you write. The ear doesn’t lie.”
Just conversational language alone would lift most B2B content.
3. Use short words, short sentences and short paragraphs.
In short (couldn’t resist), such an approach makes for easy consumption.
If you need need to see the concept in action, check out novels by Ernest Hemingway or anything on Mashable’s Watercooler channel.
Keep in mind that this guidance came way before email replaced live conversations and the rise of the Internet.
4. Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.
By Ogilvy’s definition, many in Silicon Valley have earned the moniker “pretentious ass.”
5. Never write more than two pages on any subject.
I would like to amend this tip to, “Never write more than two pages unless pandering to the SEO gods.”
Actually, I have two amendments.
“Never write more than one page for content likely to be consumed on a mobile device.”
Short words. Short sentences. Short paragraphs. No jargon.
I’m getting the hang of this.
6. Check your quotations.
7. Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.
As noted earlier, I’m a fan of “read it aloud.”
Still, this one also needs a refresh to cover communications in today’s world.
“Never send a letter, memo, text or Snapchat after consuming three glasses of a craft cocktail stored in a vat.”
8. If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.
This tip falls under the quaint category.
Email had yet to gain mass traction in 1982, so it’s understandable that Mr. Ogilvy felt the editing function should touch every important letter and memo.
Today, we simply hope the person has turned on the AutoCorrect spelling function.
9. Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.
This is great advice, especially for emails.
Just taking 30 seconds to consider the ideal outcome for each email will lead to crisper writing.
10. If you want ACTION, don’t write. Go and tell the guy what you want.
And if you’re angry with someone or need to deliver critical feedback, same drill. Don’t write. Talk to the person. If talking to face-to-face isn’t possible, pick up the phone.
Reflecting on the times I’ve arbitrated staff disputes over the years, I bet the vast majority of cases came from a misunderstanding over email. Even with the emergence of emojis, email is flat medium that doesn’t easily communicate empathy.
Ogilvy believed that “people who think well, write well.”
One could make an argument that this is even more true today.
By learning how to write well, the thinking comes along for the ride.