Clear Communication Saves Time and Money
Ryan Standil is a former lawyer and the owner of Write To Excite. He leads workshops for businesses and governments about effective writing.
According to Warren Buffett, if you improve your communication skills, you will earn 50 per cent more money.
Mr. Buffett espouses the importance of written and oral communication. “You can have all the brainpower in the world,” he said in a 2018 video, “but you have to be able to transmit it.”
In Mr. Buffett’s early days of selling securities, he overcomplicated his sales pitches and clients responded with blank stares. Eventually, he enrolled in a Dale Carnegie course on effective communication, and today, the diploma he earned is the only one in his office. The course changed his life, he says.
Indeed, communication skills are critical for generating revenue, but they also have a second benefit: Better communication saves time and money.
Imagine an employee who sends an unclear report to his team. For simple math, if a dozen readers spend an extra five minutes deciphering his writing, an entire hour is wasted.
Examples of ambiguity are endless. There have been lawsuits over ambiguous commas, military failures over unclear instructions, and the like. But it’s the everyday examples that are most common.
One of my clients, a banker, said he received an email from a colleague attaching “an updated model for review.” However, as my client explained, it was unclear from the email whether his colleague had merely added a new section (while leaving the rest of the model untouched) or had updated the existing sections as well. As a result, my client wasted several minutes investigating which section(s) needed to be reviewed.
An accountant, fresh out of university, faced similar confusion. She received an email from her manager saying that a certain document (a trial balance) was out of sync with another document (a working paper) and to please fix “it.” Having recently joined the industry and afraid to ask for clarification, the junior accountant assembled other new hires to discuss which document required fixing. When she told this story to fellow participants at my writing course – from many different industries – most of them shared similar experiences.
Wouldn’t it have been easy for the manager to change “fix it” to “fix the working paper?” It turns out that the ease (or difficulty) of revising is not the relevant question. What matters is intuition. Research shows that it is not intuitive for writers to make these revisions, because when a sentence is obvious to you, nothing alerts you that someone else is interpreting it differently.
Another example that frequently surfaces is when someone asks if you are available on “Monday or Tuesday morning.” (Is Monday afternoon an option?)
A few members of the writing community have quantified the cost of clumsy prose. Josh Bernoff is the author of Writing Without Bullshit. The book, which gives advice on effective writing in business settings, was reviewed by Harvey Schachter in 2016 for The Globe and Mail. Mr. Bernoff calculated that bad writing costs U.S. businesses US$396 billion a year. He polled hundreds of people to determine what percentage of their working time was spent trying to interpret bad writing and combined his findings with data on wages from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. His conclusion was that 6 per cent of total wages in the U.S. are spent on employees “attempting to get meaning out of poorly written material.”
Mr. Bernoff’s conclusion aligns with a finding by consulting firm McKinsey & Co. that “high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals,” spend 28 per cent of their workweek reading and responding to emails. Have you ever been looped in on an email chain and told to “See below?” After reviewing all 15 emails in the chain, did you realize that you were only being asked a simple question, which you could have answered in 30 seconds if you were told where to read? Telling someone where to read is not rocket science but we seldom do it, because it is not an intuitive writing practice.
The US$396 billion calculated by Mr. Bernoff seems rather high; however, I would argue that the total cost is even higher. Mr. Bernoff’s study concentrates on the cost of wages paid to employees, but it does not touch on the “opportunity cost.” In theory, time wasted by readers could be shifted to activities aimed at generating revenue. Hypothetically, if an employee generates $200,000 annually for her business, and she suddenly finds extra hours in the week, revenue will increase commensurately.
A case in point comes from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and its regulation of ham radios. When its regulations were first written, the FCC needed five full-time staff members to field questions from the public. Upon re-writing the regulations in simpler language, the questions disappeared, and all five staff members were reassigned. In an ordinary business, this could mean five additional minds to pursue incremental revenue.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about the world of work. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab and guidelines for how to contribute to the column here.