He’s not just a source of investment advice. Warren Buffett knows a thing or two about writing well. In fact, in this excerpt from his preface to a 1998 SEC handbook, he addresses two crucial writing commandments:
“One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.”
Treat others the way you wish to be treated. Our mothers taught us this when we were five, but she did not specify that the same principle applies to writing.
Most businesses write copy with themselves in mind. When crafting messages to attract clients or consumers, they think – what do I want to say about us? How do we want to be perceived? What do we want them to understand about who we are?
What Warren Buffett understands is that the questions that should be guiding their messaging are – what do our target clients/consumers want from a company like ours? How do they think? What do we need to understand about them?
Write like you speak. Before I learned of Mr. Buffett’s commitment to clear, direct writing, I would have assumed that a Berkshire Hathaway annual report would be a dry, jargon filled document that would require several reads for little old me to grasp. What I found were annual reports that read like he was speaking to me over an ice cream sundae at Dairy Queen.
While diligence should be paid to grammar and structure, business writing does not need to read haughty or corporate in order to be professional. Big words or clever phrases are not tools that will help a company differentiate themselves; attention to Commandment #1 will.
Follow these commandments or risk Warren Buffett’s conclusion:
“Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said.”