Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Drowning in Fluff

Guest post by Judit Halin

This article was inspired by the following example of business writing (it is an opening of a "Message from the CEO", which was emailed to all employees of an unnamed Canadian company, cited verbatim):

"We have been working to transform our company by bringing a clear and differentiated offer to the marketplace and setting new standards for customer focus, performance, our behaviours and values.

The organization has one agenda and our collective ambition to see the company become what we believe it can, is clear. The success we've achieved in the last 36 months in changing the trajectory of the company has come from thousands of things we are doing better. As we continue moving this work forward, the leadership changes announced have been made giving careful consideration to our strategy, opportunities to simplify the organization and broaden mandates."

It took the author more than 100 words to say "I am pleased to announce the new executive appointments" (9 words) - yes, this was the topic, if you haven't guessed. To be fair, the subject line and the title of the message indicated that it was "a message on executive appointments", so it's not like the readers were all "The suspense is killing me! Just tell me what it is about!". Still, the long slide into the main point almost makes you think that, somehow, the new appointments are not something to rejoice about, since this kind of indirect approach is usually taken for communicating bad news (you know, when people spend some time on telling you how great things are before dumping a load of "get this"). That may be the case, the problem with this introductory passage is not that it is too long (long can be good, when justified), but that it is 90% fluff.

Meet fluff. But you already know each other...

What is "fluff"? "Fluff" is the nicest term commonly used to describe the empty, meaningless, overblown verbiage littering business writing. Fluff production and consumption is a big business and a significant part of our daily working routine. People use it all the time to fake expertise, dance around sensitive topics, simulate content when they don't have much to say, and make themselves sound important and "sophisticated".

Let's get back to our example for a moment. The purpose of the passage must have been to excite and inspire. However, it sounds very impersonal and fails to establish a meaningful connection with the reader. It could be addressed to every employee of almost any company. The text is so generic that it is impossible to tell whether the company is a consulting firm, a carmaker, a retail chain, or a bank. Even if the purpose of the introduction was to prepare the reader for some controversial news, it would do a much better job if the author was upfront about the challenges the company is facing and how the changes in leadership structure would help overcome those. The way it's written, it reads like "Something may be going on, but it is on the need-to-know basis, and you don't need to know".

I could provide many more examples of fluffy writing, and, unfortunately, those wouldn't be hard to find. Fluff is omnipresent. We learned to live with it and got very good at ignoring it along with any bits of useful information it may contain. We are also encouraged to produce it. After all, if the senior management of your company talks like the CEO from my example, it is only logical for you to think that, in order to get ahead in the company, you have to adopt such overblown, heavily "padded", and impersonal communication style. And if a client is paying thousands of dollars for a review we just conducted, they must get at least 20 pages of observations, and if we only have 5, we better fluff it up, right?

When you are forced to read 20 pages of something that could fit into 5 - don't you feel resentful for having to waste 30 minutes of your life? Just think of what you could do with extra 30 minutes. Even if you choose to do nothing - when was the last time you had the luxury of penciling "doing nothing" into your schedule? We spend time and mental energy to filter and translate fluff into human, and it costs to print and distribute. What exactly are we paying for here? This is simply the cost of grown-ups playing the game of "let's pretend we're, like, really important and smart, and can't speak plain language".

Coping and prevention

I could write at length about why fluff is doing so well, but won't get into it here (however, if this is something you would like to read about, drop me a line). For many different reasons, fluff is rooted deeply in our communication culture and fighting it is an uphill battle. This doesn't mean, however, that we should abandon all hope to improve the situation. As it's the case with almost any world-improvement mission, the best place to start is with ourselves. Paying attention to our communication style and controlling our own fluff production rate is the best way to reduce the amount of fluff in the world. The more of us will do so, the less fluff there will be flying around, littering our lives. And if you are in a position to influence the writing of others - encourage people to communicate in plain language, clearly and concisely.

My name is Judit Halin. I am a professional consultant with a great interest in the field of business communication. I truly believe that the ability to communicate with people effectively, both verbally and in writing, is one of the top three skills required for success in career and life. This is why I am constantly looking for opportunities to learn more about interpersonal and business communication. I recently launched a web-site and blog dedicated to business communication and business writing - if you are looking for business communication tips, want to improve your writing, or simply seek motivation, visit http://www.purpleinkwriting.com


  1. Hey! Love this post. As a writing professor, I talk about fluff and cliche a lot! In business writing, especially for personal mission statements, I found a good way to avoid fluff and cliche. You write: I am devoted to_________. My goal is to ____________ by _____________. You have to insert strong verbs in that second part! Thanks! Heather http://www.livewithflair.blogspot.com/

  2. Quite delightfully fluffy. I can just imagine the employees' scorn.


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