Wentwell CEO Featured in PR Week

Why we need more inclusive business writing

It’s not “dumbing things down.” Rather, business communicators should speak and write with language that will be understood by the most people within an audience, argues Wentwell CEO Sean Carney.

By: Sean Carney

Fed Chair, Jerome Powell. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

August 4, 2022 — Ahead of Federal Reserve Board chair Jerome Powell’s press conference on the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, a paper was issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit that analyzes major economic issues. 

In the paper, a group of economists laid out thoughts about how central bankers communicate with the general public, positing that there should be better ways of informing average Americans about important policy decisions. The authors cited empirical evidence throughout the paper, noting the inherent challenges found in the mass communication of dense economic data. 

“No country will ever become a nation of monetary policy experts,” the authors wrote. “Ordinary people simply have neither the time nor the energy for that; levels of financial and economic literacy are low and hard to raise and the subject matter is complicated enough to strain the cognitive abilities of many.”

The very fact a group of economists discussed how they communicate to the public is laudable itself, but their conclusions went a step further.

“For most central bankers, communicating with the public is like landing on a strange planet; many have not landed there at all,” the authors found. “Are central bank communications understood by the general public? Mostly not, it appears, though there are some glimmers of hope. These glimmers can be stoked if central bankers use simpler prose, explain their ideas in ways to which ordinary people can relate, and focus on monetary policy’s objectives rather than on the details of implementation.”

Inclusive business writing

These insights don’t just apply to economists, but also to lawyers, doctors, tech experts and others working in industries reliant on confusing jargon. As a young PR professional working in New York City during the Great Recession, I witnessed firsthand how bankers and brokers tried to “explain” what had happened to the general public, claiming the intricacies of the problems were so nuanced that only they could untangle the mess they’d caused. As I watched friends carry out their office possessions in cardboard boxes, I lost a lot of respect for certain institutions that felt their intellect somehow transcended the public trust. 

This isn’t to say we should “dumb things down” for our audience, rather we should give the respect of communicating with language that will be understood by the most amount of people within that audience. By connecting with as many individuals as possible, you’re inspiring debate, fostering innovation and creating an environment where everyone feels they have a voice. That’s part of inclusive writing, and it’s often harder because it requires a good deal of empathy and restraint. 

Our responsibility

As consultants and communications professionals, it’s our job to help shape insights, not blindly regurgitate them. This can be tricky, especially in the early stages of your career when you haven’t acquired much clout. But our clients depend on our counsel, and we must make every attempt to soften hyperbolic rhetoric and contextualize complex concepts. Frame your argument tactfully and make concessions where you can. If you’re at loggerheads, try explaining the business value of inclusive writing, because persuasion is about connection, and improved engagement leads to stronger, more meaningful relationships.

The economists closed their paper by mentioning another important aspect of accessible language: accountability.

“Remember,” they wrote, “most efforts to communicate with the public are motivated by the democratic accountability argument…accountability clearly works better if the central bank is trusted, and transparency is one way to build trust.”

After years of disappointment, division and doom scrolling, people are yearning for authentic voices. Our strength as an economy, and as a country, comes from the many, not the few. Be among the few that can speak to the many.

Sean Carney is founder and CEO of Wentwell, a strategic communications firm, and a lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he teaches a class on business communication, persuasive speaking, and writing. 

* This story originally appeared on August 4, 2022 in PR Week *


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