Be As Clear As The CIA When You Write
BY: DAVID LEONHARDT ON FRIDAY, DECEMBER 26, 2014
The CIA is serious. When they do something, they mean business. When the CIA writes a report, they don't try to entertain. They don't worry about political correctness. Their sole goal is to inform as clearly and precisely as possible, so that management and in some cases politicians have no misunderstanding about what is happening.
The introduction to the CIA Style Manual says: “Good intelligence depends on clear, concise writing. The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.”
If you want to learn how to write good, solid, informative text for your business, you can't go wrong learning from the CIA.
Don't get me wrong, there is a time for entertaining, especially in marketing materials. There is a time for persuasion. There is a time for showing personality.
But there is also a time to be serious and focus on clarity. Some such times include:
- Contracts. Apart from the legal wording, it is paramount that the contract be understood.
- Assembly instructions. If you have ever tried to assemble a piece of furniture with poor instructions, you are nodding your head right now.
- Specification for a supplier. Whether you need printing, tooling, marketing, catering or anything else, you protect yourself from disappointment - and possibly some ridiculous costs - by being precise about what you need.
- Warranties and guarantees. You have to stand by what they mean and what people can reasonably believe they mean, so make them radically clear.
You can read the CIA Style Manual yourself, and there are a few specific points that can be gleaned from the manual that should be useful to your business. However, the basic message is clarity, and most of the manual is dedicated to ensuring clarity in every aspect of writing, word usage, measurements and abbreviations.
Here are a few tips on writing clearly.
Use acronyms sparingly, and only when they cannot be confused. APA or AMA could mean just about anything, for instance; do you know how many American Something Associations there are? Furthermore, use them only when all your audiences will understand. Technical specifications loaded with acronyms might read well with tech staff at your suppliers, but their management might not understand them all.
Often businesses need to order parts or bits and pieces or even panels for signs, windows and walls. Sometimes there are outside measurements and inside measurements; make sure to specify. Sometimes there are fractions of an inch; make sure to be accurate. Sometimes there additional requirements; don't forget them.
Use tiny words correctly. There is a huge difference between "and" and "or"; if you use the first, you will get everything you as for. If you use the latter, you will get only one of the items you ask for.
Avoid redundant words whenever possible. While writing that both parts go together is no more unclear than simply saying the parts go together, redundancy tends to get confusing if there is too much of it. People often add a lot of unnecessary words to make their writing sound more important. But it is more important to be clear than to sound important.
If you feel like splitting an infinitive, the CIA says: "Make sure that clarity or the flow of the sentence demands the split." In other words, as important as correct use of grammar is, they won't waterboard you if breaking a grammar rule means increased clarity. So, too, your business should flow all the rules of grammar, but if clarity demands breaking them on occasion, break away.
In case you wish to learn the basics of the CIA Style Manual, but don't want to read the full 190 pages (yes, it does get a bit bogged down), here are two sources that have pulled a few of the highlights out for easy absorption:
- Writing Tips from the CIA
- CIA's Style Guide Is Surprisingly Good
- Grammar Lessons Leaked: CIA Style Book
Unclear instructions, warranties and contracts can lead to highly expensive misunderstandings. The CIA takes clarity of writing very seriously, and so should your business. Sure, the consequences of your misunderstandings won't lead to World War III, but you really don't want to test how damaging they could be to your business. Take a page from the CIA for your business. Remember that the I stands for intelligence, and your business can never have too much intelligence.
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