If you learned English mainly in the German educational system, this might be the most important blog post you read here about writing for business. So, take time with it and really internalize what I’m saying here: of the 1.5 billion people who speak English in the world only 360 million of them are native speakers. Do this math with me. This means over 75% of the English speakers you encounter in the world are non-native speakers.
Whenever I talk to anyone about this topic, I always refer back to the opening lines of The Great Gatsby. The narrator says that his father gave him some advice when he was younger. He told him to “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” This is good advice for all of us in a variety of situations, but, right now, we will apply it to our writing for international business.
You’re very intelligent. We get it. Everyone gets it. If you weren’t very intelligent, you would not be working in international business. No one questions that. So, why are you using words as a way to show off your intelligence?
In American business, we have a saying. Maybe it’s not the nicest language so prepare yourself. The saying goes: if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. When you use formal language in daily writing for business, you telegraph to everyone that you are covering for some inadequacy in the document or the information.
Very often, I receive something that reads like this:
As a result of our innovative technologies, our company enables our customers to engage their user group on the highest level, therefore providing significant potential for revenue growth thus proving that our company is a valuable supplier.
The grammar of that sentence is fine. It says exactly what is intended. Nevertheless, it is wrong. It is unnecessarily complex and possibly indecipherable to a large portion of any international business readership. Let’s revise that to something more accessible for all levels of non-native English speakers:
Our innovative technologies provide our customers with the ability to engage the end-consumer meaningfully. As a result, we help our customers grow their revenue. In this way, we demonstrate why we are a valuable supplier.
How do we replace these direct translations of German words into something more accessible and normal for other non-native English speakers? We start with a list of possibilities for exchanging our less desirable vocabulary with more desirable words:
Problematic word: Hence
Better: As a consequence
For this reason
From now on
From this point on
Problematic word: Thus/Therefore
Better: As a result of this
As a consequence of this
For that reason
Problematic word: Thereby
Better: By that means
As a result of that
In this way
Problematic word: Shall/should
I/We recommend that (rather than saying “You shall” or “You should”)
Normal future with “going to”, e.g., “I shall write” is better as “I am going to write”
I want to give you a special note about shall. First, the aggregators over at Google have a nifty tool in their dictionary where you can see the usage tracking of a word. Here is the usage tracking for “shall”**:
It’s clearly just fallen out of use. I know you have been taught to use this word. Your teacher did not anticipate you would actually work with the language. English for education is much different from English for the very real world in which you work.
“Should”, however, has a higher usage statistic due to its versatility. The most important point to remember with “should” is that when you mean, “must,” say “must.” When you mean to make a recommendation such as, “You should do X,” it is better to say, “I recommend you do X.”
In business writing, the strategies are always the same:
Don’t be too complicated for your audience.
Define your audience as broadly as possible considering all second and third level users and make sure every person who reads your document will understand it.
Do not make efforts to “dumb it down” because your audience will sense that and be offended.
Opt for more sentences with fewer complete thoughts in each sentence.
* Important caveat: If you are normally writing for academic publications or for legal documentation (e.g., contracts), please read this article carefully. This written advice may only work for you in the context of writing for presentations and conferences.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash