What the CIA Can Teach Your Business
BY: DAVID LEONHARDT ON WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 27, 2014
The CIA is one of the most successful organizations in the world, tasked with gathering intelligence on what all other countries are doing. The "simple" mission is to ensure that the US President and Congress is prepared to respond to and take preemptive action in any situation that might compromise US interests.
That is a tall order requiring not only exceptional research skills, but also superior communications skills. After all, the research gathered is of no use unless the President and Congress accurately understand what it means.
There may be other things your business can learn from the CIA, but clear communications is surely one important lesson. Fortunately, the CIA’s Style Manual and Writer’s Guide has been leaked to the public, so you are now privy to at least one of the secrets to CIA success.
If you are an information addict, you can read all 185 pages for yourself, including such gripping sections as "Rations, Odds, Scores, Returns" and "Endings ·yze, ·/ze, and ·Ise".
However, if you are a busy entrepreneur who just needs to know what you can do to copy the CIA's success in communications, you need only read this article.
"Good intelligence depends in large measure on clear, concise writing. The information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively. The Directorate of Intelligence and the Agency as a whole have always understood that. Both have been home, from their earliest days, to people who enjoy writing and excel at it."
These are the very first lines in the Foreword to the CIA Style Manual. The whole point of the manual is "clear, concise writing". Sure, if you are writing a fantasy novel, you want to tease your readers and keep them guessing. But in business writing, you should get straight to the point and make sure the reader understands exactly what you mean.
No unnecessarily big words. No clever puns. No euphemisms. Get straight to the point.
"When deciding whether or not to capitalize a word, follow the old maxim: 'When in doubt, don't.' Do not, for example, capitalize the first letters of the words explaining an uppercase abbreviation unless the term abbreviated is a proper name.
"LAN (local area network) USPS (United States Postal Service)"
I have noticed people in business often would capitalize "local area network". Even more prevalent is to capitalize the names of services they offer, as in "We offer you the most Advanced Pest Control Services in the Bay Area. "There is no reason to capitalize "advanced pest control services" in English. Perhaps in German, where all nouns are capitalized, but not in English. If that is not your business name, it just looks foolish.
"Although the reader comprehends figures more readily than numbers spelled out, particularly in technical, scientific, or statistical matter, typographic appearance and other special reasons often call for spelling out numbers rather than using figures."
In most advertising, numerals make sense, because you have to convey a price or a quantity quickly. But when business communications get more detailed, such as reports and long-form letters, be careful to portray a professional image. Know when to spell out the numbers and when to write the numerals. There are a dozen handy pages in the CIA Style Manual to help you with this.
"Use abbreviations sparingly and only when their meaning is clear."
There are so many abbreviations for units of measure, titles, organizations, and other words. Some are very well known, such as "IRS" or "UK" or "Mrs." Many are known within a select community only. For example, "LEED" (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) is well-known among builders, but not so well known among their workers, and much less known among the general public.
Before using an abbreviation, stop and think who might read the document. It is not always just the main target audience that will read it. Sometime documents get passed down to line workers and sometimes up to executives or even politicians. These people might not have the specialized knowledge you and your principle reader have.
Yes, it is much easier to read a document with "NAFTA" in it two dozen times than if you write out "North American Free Trade Agreement" a couple dozen times, but first make sure that your audience knows what NAFTA stands for.
There are huge sections in the CIA Style Manual that deal with punctuation and spelling and other fun details. My favorite part comes just before the end, where it lists a few of the many redundancies that can make your business writing long-winded, and therefore less clear. For example:
- "bureaucratic red tape" (Red tape is bureaucratic)
- "build a new house" (You can't build an old house)
- "sum total" (The sum is the total - that's what "sum" means)
- "relocate elsewhere" (If you relocate in the same place, you are a cat)
- "future prospects" (Prospects are future; if they are present, they are no longer prospects)
These are just a few choice examples. Such redundancies have a habit of creeping into most business writing, so it is important to watch for them and weed them out when editing your documents. In fact, that is one of the things our editors watch for when editing client reports, press releases, blog posts, and website material.
These are just a few of the improvements you can learn from the CIA to make your business communications more effective. If you get a chance to hire a CIA writer, grab it. If not, learn to write well yourself or outsource to someone who can. It's worth the effort to make sure that your business writing is clear and effective, and that you leave a professional impression on your readers.
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