The View

Paul Tudor Jones nailed it when he identified this one essential to efficiency

The billionaire fund manager praises clear writing as helping to foster better decision making

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 8:41am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2015, 3:04pm

Here’s a name and a eulogy that I really never imagined putting together in a single sentence. However the billionaire hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones, founder of Tudor Investment, is my latest hero.

Thankfully it is not necessary to eulogise everything this highly successful and arrogant man has to say but he’s dead right about something that other captains of industry have simply not noticed: the need for business people to take newspaper writing classes. He has correctly identified the fact that skills associated with writing a concise newspaper story are closely aligned with those required to write a memo or other types of business communication.

Jones told Bloomberg that “today, in business, time is money” and for that reason “when you’ve got hundreds of decisions to make every week—dozens every day—being able to see, think and understand what the issue is in the first couple of paragraphs is actually paramount to being efficient at what you do.”

He reflects a personal frustration with the kind of written garbage that crosses my desk on a daily basis

Even – or maybe especially - us hacks who learned our trade on the job rather than in some fancy journalism school, had it drummed into our thick skulls that no one was likely to read your peerless prose unless you grabbed their attention in the first couple of paragraphs.

In straightforward news stories the top of the piece has to accurately summarise and extract the relevance of what follows. The opening paragraphs’ challenge for a commentary is somewhat harder because you are offering something that falls into the category of non-essential reading but, hopefully, adds value, yet will only do so if you can find a way of grabbing the reader’s attention so they will bother to keep going.

The reason I am excited that Jones has brought this matter to people’s attention is not just that an outsider has recognised that journalists possess skills that are highly useful in the business world but that he reflects a personal frustration with the kind of written garbage that crosses my desk on a daily basis from all sorts of people and companies who furnish communications which are supposed to be businesslike but are not only tedious but often annoying and, above all, unnecessarily time consuming.

Jones says that reporting skills help to synthesise complex problems but it goes further than that because the ability to summarise and clearly state what it is you are writing about also applies to non-complex matters that somehow become complex in the hands of a inept person with a touch of writer’s diarrhoea.

I am well aware that particular problems prevail in Hong Kong where the written language of business tends to be English, which, at best, is the second language of the people who use it for communications. So, let’s be clear: the problem is not primarily that of poor English usage, poor grammar or even inaccurate spelling because these are side issues and hardly justified for criticism from a native English speaker.

The bigger issue is clarity of thought and an inability to communicate these thoughts in writing in an appropriate fashion. Language skills are quite another matter and, arguably, no more than a mere technical problem.

To give a specific example, what can be more tiresome than getting a written proposal for, say, buying a product or service, that is presaged by a long rambling screed about how much the writer values you personally or your company collectively, followed by a mountain of guff about how other people value this offering and only after some considerable time are you told what it actually is and what it does.

Then there are the communications from people who have supped far too heavily at the well of public relations or some other form of black art. Here you will see an abundance of adjectives, my pet hate being “very unique” and then there are alleged descriptions that serve not to illuminate but to obscure meaning.

It is no exaggeration to say that business communications suffer from a plague of this stuff and that those responsible require some modest re-education in the none-too-complicated skills of straightforward and succinct communications.

A greater depth of ineptitude in written communications is routinely found in the work of government and other public bodies which seems to prefer writers who think it is clever to employ quasi-legalistic forms of phrasing and add so many qualifying sub-clauses to their central message as to ensure that the core of the message is submerged and only recovered with considerable effort.

Henceforth therefore, and not withstanding circumstances in which the above may, according to varying conditions, not be wholly or partly applicable, it may be considered appropriate to re-appraise the way these singular and several communications are composed.

Failing that plain English might just suffice.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster