Emails, messages, technical documentation, memos, which is the ability to write well, is critical to business success. Yet many of us feel insecure about our writing ability, while others simply don't spend any time thinking about it. I'm Matt Abrahams and I teach Strategic Communication at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Welcome to Think Fast. Talk Smart, the podcast.
Today we are so fortunate to be joined by Glenn Kremen. Glenn has been an editor at the New York Times for close to thirty five years. He also teaches an incredibly popular class at the GSB called Winning Writing. Glenn really understands what makes for good writing and is a master at helping others hone and improve theirs. In fact, GSB students honored Glenn by awarding him their annual Distinguished Teaching Award.
Welcome, Glen. Thank you. Matt, great to be here with the master communicator.
Well, you're too kind. Hey, before we dive in, I'm curious if you have a pet peeve or two when it comes to others writing, what gets your hackles up?
Beginning an email with hope you are. Well, everyone does that avoid it? It's a cliche and it's implied hope you are well waste space, particularly for those in a hurry reading on their phones. If you want to begin with a greeting like that, at least be more clever. Recently I heard hope you are feeling positive and testing negative. That's just ripe for a pandemic.
Met and it makes you one in a million instead of one of a million. Another pet peeve is starting slowly before getting to the point. My boss, The New York Times Fred Andrews, used to call this type of writing organ music before the church service begins. Wow, start fast. Get to the point, as my students from the military say about responding to an officer. Bottom line up front. It's a sign of respect not to waste an officer's time or anyone else's.
I've definitely heard of Bullough before. Bottom line up front. And I have to admit, Glenn, I am now totally nervous that I might have invited you to be on this podcast by starting with. I hope you are. Well, I will never do that again.
My students, when after they graduate, they always send me that and then cross it out.
I see a good lesson learned and they're demonstrating that any guidance on how we should approach writing for business? Yes.
The first rule in all my classes is no as much as you can about your audience. Then you can make them laugh and cry and act on what you want them to do. My favorite example of this comes from a commencement speech right here at Stanford a couple of years ago by the actor Sterling K. Brown. Right. So we know he's on this is US and Black Panther, but he knew his audience and he knew the largest group in that audience.
And Stanford Stadium that day was the parents. Most of them had never heard of Sterling K. Brown. And they were saying, who the heck is this guy to be our graduation speaker? I want Bill Gates.
I want Oprah. So Sterling knew that while graduation celebrates the students, the real celebrities are the parents who worked their butts off to get their kids to where they are today. Sure. So right at the start, he told the parents his goal that day was to make them say what a nice young man, I think I'll go home and watch his show. And so they did. He won us all over. I'd never heard of him. I admit it.
He was all over then. OK, that was his largest constituency, the parents. Now, the second largest constituency in the audience was students themselves. So as a Stanford grad himself, Sterling told the students, I've set where you set what a connection. Always want to make a connection like that. They were transfixed. Google Sterling Cabrones Stanford commencement speech. That should be your top takeaway from Mat's podcast today.
And you know what, Glenn? The the idea about knowing your audience has surfaced so many times in this podcast. And it is critical. And I was actually in the audience when Sterling K. Brown spoke. And not only did he know his audience well, but he delivered it in such a engaging and conversational manner. It made it really easy to connect. The way he delivers it is as important as the words themselves. I had a couple more tips.
Sure. One is speak succinctly and simply avoid convoluted jargon. Some people think complicated words and sentences make them sound smarter. They don't remember the words of Kurt Vonnegut. He said, I trust my writing. Most and others seem to trust it most when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. Be yourself. So why say utilize when you can say use, why say incentivize when you can say, encourage or motivate?
Silicon Valley, by the way, boasts some of the worst offenders. A good friend of mine has compiled a list of his favorite nonsensical jargon. And I'm going to give you two examples, Matt. So here's one.
Yes. This is about scaling emerging solutions to pivot the frame to embracing what's possible.
I'm going to give you another. I'm particularly excited about their interest in pivoting more toward a solutions frame as they step into this next season of storytelling, as the dairymen from Fiddler on the Roof would say, that's not talking, that's babbling. No one understands it. It's pretentious and so alienating. So just speak English. And then the third one I had, Matt, was tell stories. So much of business writing reads like term papers and want to write something closer to scripts for Hollywood movies with vivid scenes, with with dialogue, with humor.
My friend at The New York Times, Nick Kristoff, reminds us you can write about millions starving in Africa and readers won't respond. But if you tell the story of one stick thin girl reduced to eating clay with the buzzards waiting for her to die, then readers respond. I call it the power of one and a story, one personal example makes such a difference.
I'm curious, what role does structure in emotion play in business writing? Emotion is huge, our Stanford business school colleague, Jennifer Auther shows how readers are far more likely to remember a story than to remember a statistic, particularly a story with emotion like the one about the little girl in Africa. And I always ask my students, raise your hands. If you're more affected by stories and statistics, everybody raises their hands except for a few. I, by the way, are more affected by statistics, and I tell the few others we are in the minority.
We have to remember in the audience they care more about stories. As for structure, I would suggest writing, as journalists do, with the most important facts and the take away right at the start, not at the end, as so many people do in term papers. It's it's something we must have learned in high school. You have your most important words at the end, I would say. Right on the assumption that the reader will not finish your wonderful piece, even if you are Shakespeare.
That's that's sad, but likely very true, so we were very fortunate to have Jennifer on this podcast where she talked about story and her new adventures into humor. And Glenn, as a former high school teacher, I taught high school for two years when I left high tech before I came to academe. And you're right, we do teach students in high school to build up to the most important point. And in fact, that sounds exactly opposite of what you're recommending.
That's also what academics do all too often, and I know editors of The New York Times who are using pieces by academics spend a bunch of time telling them, no, the reader is impatient, start with the most important conclusion and then explain how you got their humor. You mentioned humor. It's so important in any kind of writing. I've been told that the admissions officers at Stanford. Fairly cry when they read an application essay that has humor because everyone is so earnest and when you're seeing 40 thousand earnest application essays, you are thrilled when someone says something funny and it's true of any kind of writing and speaking.
Glenn, you've just given away part of the secret sauce about what to do to apply at Stanford, I think people will be listening eagerly to hear that advice. I'm curious to understand what process you recommend that writers follow in terms of how they write. You've mentioned thinking about your audience, putting your bottom line up front. Is there anything else involved in the process you suggest? There is Matt, but I would start again with picture your audience, perhaps you're a friend or a colleague, think of a person you're writing to or a reader.
Then pretend you're telling them a story. Relax. Play is what I do, I play, Don't Worry, Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin. That move with your laptop to an appealing place, a lot of people, a lot of the students that are going outdoors, so your creative juices flow, don't just sit there and stare at the computer saying, oh, my God, how am I going to start? Now, the one thing you need to know your main point before you start writing, and I would write it at the top of the document, this is in newspapers, we call this the headline.
Thought you could call it the Web summary. It's just the main thesis. And that what you keep looking up to it and it keeps you moving in the right direction. Then outline what you want to say. And that's so important, particularly for a longer piece, but don't feel compelled to write the first paragraph. First, my my friend David Barstow, he's the only reporter on the planet to have won four Pulitzer Prizes, says he wrote the first few paragraphs of his blockbuster on Donald Trump's dubious tax avoidance.
This was the first of the big stories about Trump playing games with his taxes. He wrote those first few paragraphs only after he'd written much of the story. And I think the story was about thirteen thousand words, one of the longest stories The Times is ever run. And we were amazed when he said, no, no, I didn't. I knew my main point was going to be. His point is you don't have to start at the beginning.
Just start putting down what you know is going to be in the story. And that's the beauty of computers, is you don't have to you can cut and paste so easily. And then when you finish writing, try to cut it by at least a third. Wow. A third. I'm serious, Matt, that most people it's even more exercise, unnecessary words, sentences, even paragraphs. I would say it's like a dentist cleaning teeth. You can actually I get satisfaction out of it, although I'm not sure I've ever found this to do does.
But but just it looks so much cleaner when you finish and all the tartar is gone and then replace the jargon with conversational English, go through it and look at words and say, is that just jargon for my little community will be intelligent generalists, understand it or think it's pretentious. And then one more tip is that I find that reading your writing aloud is a great way to find improvements, thinking, well, I don't need those three words, why don't I even have those?
And speaking is different. Sometimes people when they speak, they add words just as they put their thoughts together. But you have no excuse to do that when you're writing. Make it as concise as you can.
So, Glenn, many of us feel that writing is like pulling teeth, but I've never heard anybody say it's like cleaning teeth. But I like that analogy. I got to steal that and that. I like that. There you go. There you go. Glad I could help you as much as you're helping all of us. Can you provide me with two or three other best writing practices that you suggest? Yeah, I'm going to say and I always say, when you're giving speeches, you've got to repeat the thought if it's really going to sink in.
So I'm going to say one no as much as you can about your audience to write simply and succinctly.
Three tell stories, don't write essays, do you recommend specific tools you encourage your students to use to help them with their writing?
Yes, and for me, it is keep a daily journal, I've kept one for fifty seven years and that I am striving for the world record ninety one years, that means I'll have to live to be one hundred and three to break the record, but I'm just determined to do it. Nothing else has so improved. My writing practice makes perfect, just as with playing the piano or running or climbing mountains. The more you do it, the easier it gets.
And I always tell the student there's an added benefit where we live in Silicon Valley. It is great therapy and it is a lot cheaper than going to a therapist. Some therapists charge five hundred bucks an hour around here, not worth it. I mean, I'm quite serious when I say you learn so much about yourself, about what's important and what isn't. It was Nora Roberts who said that when you're juggling a lot of balls, as we all are, you have to remember which of the balls are plastic and which of the balls are glass.
And keeping a journal is such a great way to do this. If you read back on it, you realize, why did I make such a big deal out of it, that it was so unimportant and oh my God, I didn't realize how important this other thing was going to be. And you learn then to be a better person and to live your life. You could say more efficiently, more effectively. And then one more thing I tell them is read the economists if you can, only you're going to say, oh, that's just the business magazine.
It isn't. It's written for the intelligent generalist particularly. I commend its obituaries on the back page, their works of art, such great writing. They write about people you probably never heard of and will wish you want to see a movie about them after you read the obituary and write as The Economist does. It's clever, it's fair, concise. Obviously, I say read The New York Times too. But I think a lot of people know to read The New York Times, I think The Economist is a secret that more people should know about.
I have certainly learned a lot from reading The Economist, and I think it's really awesome that writing can help others to understand us, but also writing can help us understand ourselves. Before we end, I'd like to ask you the same three questions I ask everyone. Are you up for that yet? All right.
Number one, if you were to capture the best communication advice you ever received as a five to seven word presentation slide title, what would it be? Well, say what you like and what you would like. Not what you don't like. Well, sorry about that, that's that's 14 words. OK, you know, I'm going to I got to practice what I preach. I'm just going to say, OK, OK, how about this praise and be constructive, not destructive.
Six words that my work in half. So praise and be constructive, not destructive is the best communication advice I can offer because people will be willing to listen if they think you're on their side, if they think you're out to get them, they will shut down, turn the other way. Try to go over your head. I like that advice a lot and so much of the communication in the world today feels destructive and I like the idea of starting with praise.
So I'm going to be very curious how you answer question number two, who is a communicator that you admire and why? Steve Jobs. I love the guy when he was dying 10 years ago, he visited us at the Times, probably against doctor's orders, to talk about how we could improve NY Times that he knew we were slow to accept that computer screens would replace print newspapers.
He could have called us chimpanzees, but he followed that fundamental rule of writing and speaking with influence. Say what you like and what you would like, not what you don't like. So Steve started by saying what he like. He told us that the nation needed The New York Times, that he and his family were such avid readers that they would fight over the Sun print sections in their living room. We were so flattered that we would have followed him off a cliff after that.
And then he said what he would like, for example, he told us the Times needed to make it easier for people to sign up online and offered his own iTunes as a model. He never said what he didn't like, that the Times was still in the Stone Age and wouldn't survive unless we move forward in time. You know what, Matt? He was so passionate, so clearly loved his work and his life, and that is contagious. All right, Steve Jobs.
And speaking of amazing commencement speakers at Stanford, Steve Jobs delivered quite a impressive commencement speech. My favorite line was Love What You're Doing, find what you love and stick to it.
Question number three, what are the first three ingredients that go into a successful communication recipe? Oh, good. So I get to repeat my most important points at the end, no one knows as much as you can about your audience to write simply and succinctly. And three, tell stories, don't write essays.
Glenn, how we write is a direct reflection of who we are, and we all must take time to develop and hone our writing. And thanks to you in the tips and advice you've given us, I believe all of us can be better writers. Thank you for your time, your insight and your humor. Thank you, Matt. It's my pleasure. Thank you for listening to Think Fast, Talk Smart, the podcast, a production of Stanford Graduate School of Business.
To learn more, go to GSB. That's Stanford. Dad, please download other episodes wherever you find your podcast.