GG: Tell us a little about your new book, Writing Without Bullshit.
Mr. Bernoff: Writing Without Bullshit is about practical writing in the 21st century. I address the fact that we all learned to write for readers who read in print — but people overwhelmingly read on screens now. This requires a pointed, bold, bullshit-free writing style. If you acquire the discipline of writing like that, you’ll stand out from all the lazy, passive, jargon-laden, over long writing that makes up the rest of what people are reading.
GG: What’s the single biggest issue you see with most writing out there today?
Mr. Bernoff: According to my survey of business writers, the biggest problem they have with what they read is that it is too long. I think the discipline of writing short, pointed prose is a lost art — because there are no hard limits on how long an email, or a blog post, or an article can be. People need to discipline themselves to write short, because the average article gets only 36 seconds of attention. That’s not much time to make your point.
GG: The thought leadership space has exploded in recent years. What does this mean for content? How can you make sure your content stands out?
Mr. Bernoff: There is no area of content more suffused with bullshit than the “thought leadership space,” as you put it. It’s so easy for people to blog or self-publish a book, so anyone with an idea is out there telling you what to do. As the author of four business books and over 100 research reports, I have a clear idea of what leaders need to do to stand out. You must have a single, powerful idea. You must express it in a bold way that is easy to understand. And most importantly, you need to back up your idea with case studies, experience, and statistics — proof points that ensure that you’re not just making stuff up.
GG: Is there anyone producing great corporate comms/branded content right now? What are they doing right that we can learn from?
Mr. Bernoff: Two real standouts are Apple and Google. Here’s an excerpt from Apple’s defense of its actions in the San Bernardino iPhone-cracking case. Look at how simply Tim Cook expresses himself:
Building a version of iOS that bypasses security in this way would undeniably create a backdoor. And while the government may argue that its use would be limited to this case, there is no way to guarantee such control… The government is asking Apple to hack our own users and undermine decades of security advancements that protect our customers — including tens of millions of American citizens — from sophisticated hackers and cyber criminals.
Or have a look at Google’s mission statement, which couldn’t be clearer:
Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
GG: How do you recommend that writers approach different mediums (i.e. email, social media, reports)? Do the same fundamentals come into play, or are the rules different for each?
Mr. Bernoff: The fundamentals are similar. Writers should write as short as possible, front-load content with the key elements at the beginning, avoid jargon and passive voice, and so on. What’s different is the expectations of the readers. I have separate chapters in my book on email, on reports, on PR writing, and so on. I recommend that people think carefully about their desired readers, objectives, action, and impression in each of these contexts, and use that to customize what they write in each medium.
GG: Do you think writing matters more or less in the career space right now? Why?
Mr. Bernoff: We expect coders to code and marketers to market and executives to lead, but somehow, we think everyone can and should write. And as a result, it is a skill that everybody needs. No matter what you do, if your writing is clear and bold and free of bullshit, you’ll stand out. I have many examples of people who’ve gotten ahead through their clear expression. Everyone should master this skill.
GG: What tips can you give our readers/clients when they are selecting a writer to help them stand out? What should they look for?
Mr. Bernoff: When seeking a writer, people with an idea should look for compatibility. If you express yourself with boldness, look for someone bold. And if you have a sense of humor, your writer should have that, too. Basically, the client and the writer should have the same stylistic idea about what makes sense in writing. As someone who had done plenty of writing for others, I can also recommend that when you hire a writer, you’d better realize that you have a lot of work to do on organizing your ideas. Writers can help you put your thoughts into words. But it’s a lot easier if those thoughts hang together and make sense — and that takes a little work for any thinker.
Learn how to order an advance copy of Writing Without Bullshit here.
Josh Bernoff is the coauthor of three books on business strategy, including Groundswell, which was a bestseller. He is also the CEO of wellnesscampaign.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to the pursuit of wellness through changing habits.