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Thursday, Jul 29, 2004

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Writing right

Sujata Keshavan

In a world struggling with information overload, crisp, direct and simple communication is what works best.

Is it a clear picture?

HOW can organisations communicate effectively?

I recently saw a brochure for a leading manufacturing company that started like this: "We provide end-to-end solutions that are backed by in-depth expertise with a proven track record with years of experience. Our teams display the utmost commitment and integrity and their expertise and years of experience allow us to provide end-to-end solutions."

It waffled on, in much the same vein, for the remaining eight pages. I counted 16 instances of "end-to-end" solutions. After forcing myself to read the entire thing twice, I realised there was absolutely no mention of what the company actually did — a necessary piece of information, one would imagine, for anyone actually wishing to do business with them! (There was no help to be had from the pictures either — the cover showed the company logo set amidst a rather jolly sunrise while the other images were generic, stock shots of handshakes and people holding up hands in victory.) Slap on another logo and that glossy leaflet could be just as "relevant" to a catering firm or a financial services provider. It was of no use to anyone except perhaps the design agency which would surely benefit from its potential for recycling.

Never facilitate if you can help, warned Mark Twain. For the most part, our business communication certainly doesn't pay heed. The more complex and long-winded it is, the more it thinks it reflects expertise and seriousness of intent. If the reader must wade through a morass of unintelligible words and awkwardly constructed sentences, no matter, for he will be suitably impressed at the end of it. In a world struggling with information overload, it is amazing that we have not yet learnt that crisp, direct and just plain simple communication is what works best.

Things deteriorate even more when we are anxious to please. Consider this feedback form that a top-notch IT company handed out to clients at a presentation in Chicago: "We are grateful to you for sparing your valued time to attend this presentation. Your valued feedback will be of utmost value to us. " Against the first question which asked what the respondent looked for in a service provider, an important client had pithily written: "Value: but I'm not sure if your definition is the same as mine". A small incident, but damage has surely been done to the image of a firm, which is trying hard to establish its "global" nature.

As part of a survey for an outsourcing firm, we asked their clients in the US to list areas that most needed improvement. Eighty five per cent said communication was one of the top three problem areas. While the problem may be more acute when the target audience is global, it is certainly not restricted to `techie' firms. At the launch of a food and beverage brand, we gathered around to hear the creative director of a premier agency share the central idea for the campaign. "We have," he proclaimed importantly, "managed to sum up the essence of the brand in a five-word tag line. We nourish," he continued, "and we flourish." But, I pointed out meekly, did the end-consumer really care that his nourishment helped us flourish. And, would he not be a tad annoyed at being constantly reminded of where his hard-earned money was ending up? In the strained silence that followed, a junior copywriter sprang to his guru's defence. "You do realise," he said sternly, "it rhymes."

A well-known Indian writer had an interesting take on why the quality of the communication we produce was falling rapidly. He felt that the whole societal trend of glorifying the sciences and treating humanities as secondary has taken its toll. Certainly, a generation that has swiftly adopted and benefited from technology has but a nodding acquaintance with literature of any quality. Reading is critical for any writer, regardless of what he/she writes. We always ask prospective employees to name an author or book that's touched their lives. Most find it hard to come up with any — of those who do, the majority say John Grisham or the bewilderingly popular Ayn Rand.

In a world dominated by one-liners, multiple-choice questions and 10-second commercials, we're fast forgetting how to organise, structure and present information so that it engages the reader. There are, of course, broad guidelines that will help you produce collateral with impact (and we will look at these in articles that follow) but here's a great starting point. Make sure your presentation, brochure, Web site, CD ROM, annual report, or whatever doesn't leave the reader with a sense of what some wit called deja moo: the tired feeling that they've heard this bull before.

(The author is Managing Director of Bangalore-based brand identity and design consultancy Ray + Keshavan.)

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