Last week I attended a workshop on writing for clarity and impact with plain language. It was a pretty good course given it was only an hour and a half. The highlight for me was that the handbook that came with the course cited Warren Buffett!
I was pretty surprised to hear the name Warren Buffett in the middle of a writing course. Apparently, Warren Buffett wrote the preface to a 1998 SEC document on writing in plain English. I really shouldn’t be surprised Mr. Buffett is included in a writing handbook for the SEC since he writes great shareholder letters every year.
This is the first time that I have heard about this document. I’m sure that there are a few hardcore Buffettheads that have read this document, but I think most of you probably haven’t seen it. Here is what Mr. Buffett contributed:
This handbook, and Chairman Levitt’s whole drive to encourage “plain English” in disclosure documents, are good news for me. For more than forty years, I’ve studied the documents that public companies file. Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said. If corporate lawyers and their clients follow the advice in this handbook, my life is going to become much easier.
There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description. Maybe we simply don’t have the technical knowledge to grasp what the writer wishes to convey. Or perhaps the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than-scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.
Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.
This handbook tells you how to free yourself of those impediments to effective communication. Write as this handbook instructs you and you will be amazed at how much smarter your readers will think you have become.
One unoriginal but useful tip: Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway’s annual report, I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.
No siblings to write to? Borrow mine: Just begin with “Dear Doris and Bertie.”
I’m going to try taking Warren Buffett’s tip to heart here at Fat Pitch Financials. I will start writing my articles as if they were letters to my sister and mother. Hopefully, you’ll notice an improvement and you will better understand what I’m trying to say.