Salem Middle School students in Mr. Vannoy’s 7th grade English class likely remember two things about him:
- He had a can of Dinty Moore beef stew up front on a shelf that had “Extra Beefy” written prominently across the can.
- He was unusually particular.
I never had to try hard in most English classes. But I did in Mr. Vannoy’s. I still don’t know why he was such an outlier.
I’d hand things in and they seemed clear and fine to me. But he’d mark them up all over the place and hand them back to me.
As is true of most hard things in life, what needed the most work was where I learned the most. And my writing evidently needed it.
Mr. Vannoy always used to fling things back and say, “Can you beef this up?” Then he’d point to that godforsaken can of Dirty Moore “Extra Beefy” beef stew at the front of the class.
Papers would often come back with little comments like:
“What is the point of this?”
Later in high school I can recall one history paper returned from Jeanne Hartsook with the comment: “Can you prove this?”
I couldn’t tell at the time, but they were pointing out my bullshit. Without saying it, they were saying, ”Stop being lazy and figure this out so the reader doesn’t have to.”
I’d pick up little tricks of grammar and punctuation in high school, too, like removing excess words like “that” (thanks, Lisa Cooper!) and “had” (thanks, Mark Carter!). But it was the deeper forced questioning that was more valuable.
The difference between our English teachers and the people who read our emails, papers, reports, and stories today is our English teachers had to read every paper.
But our readers—the people you work with, blog subscribers, your boss or board, your Slack colleagues—don’t have to read your crap. They’ve got other things to do and other things to click to occupy their time.
If your writing doesn’t contain human emotion, challenges, or isn’t specific, it’s vague. And if it’s vague it’s ambiguous. And that means you probably need to point to a can of beef stew for inspiration.
Vague writing is open to interpretation
The problem with vague, ambiguous words is it leaves you open to interpretation. This is a lawyer’s nightmare, but imagine the impact of not giving your colleagues clear direction. Or your supervisor or project lead not handing you clear instructions about what the client needs.
You might think your writing is always clear, but you can test it. First, read the headline or subject of your paper or text and ask yourself these two questions:
- Can you describe who I am / or what this is / or what the point you want to make is? What are you trying to say?”
- Can you prove it?
If the answer to either question is “No”, there’s a problem. Re-read your body text and ask yourself these two questions again, one paragraph at a time.
Imagine you need to write a paragraph describing what your company is about and you write:
We understand our health connects us to each other. What we all do impacts those around us. So we’re dedicated to delivering better care to our members, providing greater value to our customers, and helping improve the health of our communities.
That’s the opening ‘About us’ statement for Anthem BCBS.
How does health connect us? Is it because I’m alive and I don’t usually sit near dead people?
What we all do impacts those around us. Like COVID vaccinations?
…dedicated to delivering better care to our members…and value to our customers. Wait…what’s a customer and what’s a member? How is there a difference? Am I a customer? If not, what am I paying for?
Helping improve the health of our communities…how?
It’s all vague and ambiguous. Probably on purpose, but that doesn’t make it good.
Through two sentences we’ve managed to under-estimate and over-estimate their meaning and I’m struggling to know what it is Anthem does based on that text. Plus, an insurance company didn’t use the word insurance to describe themselves, which is odd and suspicious.
Ambiguity is for weasels and lets you hide
This text from Anthem is easy to ignore precisely because they’re big and boring. For an insurance company that’s probably a feature and not a bug.
But for everyone else being ignored means fewer sales or leads.
I mean no offense to the folks at Anthem BCBS—I’m sure every sentence there gets run through a meat grinder run by lawyers and executives. But if they wanted to stand out, they could have said:
Your health is what connects you to the people you love. Whether it’s being at your grandkids birthday party or your sister’s graduation, we understand how health decisions you make today impacts tomorrow. That’s why we’re working to deliver affordable health insurance coverage for more Americans. Already, 1-in-8 Americans gets coverage from Anthem. Together with our medical partners, we’re securing commitments and action for high-quality, affordable, and accessible healthcare.
The hard part about this is it takes some extra work to prove it. And it takes some balls.
Ask these two questions on any random paragraph
Next time you’re working on an email, report, slide, or talk, take any random paragraph and ask yourself these two questions:
- What is the point I’m trying to make?
- Can I prove it?
If the answer is “Yes” to both, you’ve done your job.