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Writers, go forth and sin no more: be honest with yourself: how many of the Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing are you guilty of committing?

Oscar Wilde once said: "There is no sin except stupidity."

He obviously never met any corporate communicators. We commit lots of sins. Lots of writing sins, to be specific. In fact, in my 22 years of reading and critiquing corporate publications, intranets, press releases, websites, brochures and annual reports, I've seen communicators commit the same sins over and over again.

If I had to compile a complete list, it would probably number about 100 common sins. Everything from grip-and-grin photos and boring headlines to gratuitous "wellness" stories and over-the-top marketing copy disguised as press releases.

But if I had to narrow it down to just seven sins--The Seven Deadly Sins of Organizational Writing--I know which ones I would pick. In this column, we'll take a look at the first three sins. In the next issue, we'll cover the other four. Take a look and then ask yourself: How many of these do you commit on a regular basis?


Deadly Sin No. 1: Burying the most interesting information

Most journalists lead a story with the most interesting or most important information. But most journalists don't have to deal with corporate politics, insecure managers and approval processes that somehow manage to drive all the good stuff into the middle of the story, where it gets lost.

Here's an example. A very good hospital publication was doing a print piece about innovation there. The centerpiece of the story was a brand-new, really cool device that one of the hospital's doctors had invented. It was a mini camera that could hook up to the end of a catheter, so doctors could insert the catheter more efficiently.

Tiny spy cameras attached to catheters! Painless insertions into private areas! This is interesting stuff! And in the story, the doctor had some great quotes about how this wonderful little invention would save a lot of people a ton of pain and suffering.

So, obviously, that should be the lead, right? The writer should start by talking about how revolutionary the device is, the benefits it provides to patients--hell, maybe even quote a patient!--and then put the doctor's best quote right up there. Then, it would flow into the larger concept of innovation at the hospital. It practically writes itself!

But that's not what happened. Through no fault of their own, and because of internal politics, the editors of the magazine had to lead the piece by talking not about the cool catheter, or even the doctor, but rather about the teamwork involved with the two different groups that worked together on the project. And they had to give the full name of each department, as well as their acronyms.

So they started with two thick paragraphs about that. Boring. Then they built paragraph three around a dry quote about teamwork from a senior hospital executive. Boring.

Then--and only then--in paragraph four, did they talk about the tiny catheter camera and the cool doctor who invented it.

In the age of rampant ADD, paragraph four in a hospital publication story is like Chapter 89 of Moby Dick. Very few people are going to get that far.

This is a battle worth fighting, writers. Fight to move the most interesting, important stuff up in the story, and push all that background down where it belongs-or, if you can, out of the story altogether, if the only reason you're running it is to stroke egos.

Always, always ask yourself this simple question: What's the one thing that will get people to start reading this story? And that has to be your lead, internal politics be damned.

Deadly Sin No. 2: Writing too much copy

Sometimes this sin is a direct result of Sin No. 1: We write too much copy because people force us to include too much corporate baggage.

But sometimes it's our own fault. Sometimes we get a little too cute and fall in love with our own writing.

I recently found a good example of this on a manufacturing company's intranet. The writer was assigned that old staple of corporate communications: the United Way story. The mission: Get people to donate money to the United Way.

Here's how she led the piece:

"Over the years, XYZ Corp. has had a lot of fun with its United Way campaigns. We've put on bake sales; had photo contests; held trivia contests; did food drives; and even hosted a United Way picnic.

"But no matter how much fun we have, Pledge Week is always where we raise the most money, and it's just around the corner! This is the week when we ask you to dig deep and give whatever you can afford to the United Way."

Now, there's nothing terrible about this lead. The writer is trying to inject a little personality into a topic that is, quite frankly, a little boring. And since the writer has probably written a version of this story 10 or 12 times, she's probably doing whatever she can to spice it up a little with that feature-style lead.

But there's one problem. This story is online, on an intranet. People aren't going to the intranet to read cute leads about picnics and trivia contests. They are going there to get a form or reserve a conference room or find a phone number.

If we have a really interesting feature story (such as one about tiny catheter cameras!), people may get sucked into reading it. But when the story is boring (and fund drives may be the very definition of boring), we need to hit readers with the facts--fast.

And this story has facts. Really cool facts, in fact. Down deep in the story, in the fourth paragraph (where all the good stuff always seems to end up), we learn that if you donate just 50 cents a week, you can help an elderly person get special transportation for medical treatment, such as radiation therapy. For a buck a week, you can help a troubled teenager attend seminars to help him develop better social and leadership skills. And so on. Those are cool facts. So is the fact that this particular company accounted for 13 percent of the United Way's donations for its region.

But those facts are going to get lost, because the writer took too long to get there. She wrote too much. Better to start with a news lead announcing pledge week, hit them with a bulleted list of cool facts, and then tell them how and when to contribute.

Deadly Sin No. 3: Not coming up with conversational quotes

There's a very simple reason why most corporate quotes suck: because they're not really quotes. Nobody actually said the words. Either the writer made up the quote, or the source emailed the quote to the writer, or 17 people collaborated on the quote, or maybe it was a real quote once but by the time the lawyers worked it over, it reads like the disclaimer at the end of a Viagra commercial.

I actually know more than one company that routinely has multiple people saying the same quote!

So you'll get quotes like this:

"The innovative, world-class Swankset Power Tool Line will revolutionize how workers implement tool line solutions by leveraging best-in-class technology with cutting-edge research and product development," said John Dileo, marketing manager, Power Tool Line Division, North America, and Dick O'Toole, sales development regional manager, Power Tool Line Division, North America.

Really? They both said it? At the same time? Did they get drunk and chant it together outside a bar? Did they rehearse it, so it didn't sound like a version of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," where everyone starts on a different word?

As a writer, it's your job to fight for good quotes. When John and Dick turn in their carefully crafted, totally fake quote, pick up the phone and call each of them. Ask them a couple of questions. Get them talking like human beings. And above all, quote them separately!

Otherwise, you'll pay for your sin of running a bad quote, when nobody reads or believes your article or press release.

Next issue, we'll look at the other four deadly sins--including a big one: writing for the wrong audience. So tune in!

Steve Crescenzo is the leader of the popular "Creative Communications" seminar. His website is
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Title Annotation:creative communication
Author:Crescenzo, Steve
Publication:Communication World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2012
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