Some of us might have had the misfortune of witnessing road rage while driving. But all of us have been forced to listen to “car horn rage.” Honking their car horn is the way many drivers express themselves— even when it’s obvious that the noise will have absolutely no impact on traffic conditions.

I just read a great article about “the inescapable cruelty of the car horn,” written by Calum Marsh in the National Post. In it he examines the origins of car horn use (as a safety measure). He also considers how it has devolved into aggressive drivers leaning on their horns to tell the world how frustrated they are.

Solutions to car horn noise have mostly failed. In New York City, for example, signs saying, “DON’T HONK,” placed in intersections in 1986, had almost no impact. Twenty-some years later, NYC finally admitted defeat by taking the signs down. Other cities, like Paris and London, have made “superfluous honking” in the city limits illegal — but it’s very difficult to enforce. In fact, the pointless noise from car horns is pretty much an impossible problem with no possible solution.

Why all this fuss about a little noise? Well, actually it’s a lot of noise. And noise has a negative effect on people’s health (e.g. changes in blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones), not to mention our sense of psychological well-being. Most people, in their daily lives, want a sense of clarity and control. Just as we don’t want to be bombarded by car horn noise when walking down the street, we also don’t want to be overwhelmed by the equivalent in our business communications.

The “car horn” of the business communications world is the kind of writing that distracts the reader from the key message. As Jonathan Malm defines it, in his article called How to Cut Through the Noise, “Noise is anything happening between the giver and receiver that distracts from the clarity of the message.”

Malm gets it exactly right. When you’re lost by the end of the first paragraph of a report because the writing is so dense and confusing — that’s noise. When you give up on an email because it lacks paragraphs or punctuation — that’s noise. Of course, there are ways to help cut through the noise in your own writing, by taking the following steps.

How to Cut Through the Noise in Your Business Writing

  1. Think Before You Write:
    Ask yourself, “Who is the audience for your work?” If it’s the Car Horn Manufacturers Guild, you want to use a different approach than if it’s the Global Institute for Silent Retreats. Of course, you may not know what kind of language will work best for either industry. So in order to familiarize yourself start by researching. Ultimately, the words you use must match the needs and knowledge of your audience.
  2. Write Before You Edit:
    Your first draft is allowed to be wordy — perhaps you’re just trying to get all your ideas down on the page. But that’s why the term “first draft” exists, so there will be subsequent drafts that eliminate any “noise.” The aim is for clarity and precision, not wordiness or repetition. Ruthlessly, cut away any unnecessary words. To put it bluntly: Get to the point!
  3. Consult Before You Send:
    Proofread your work before sharing it with your audience. Better yet, have a trusted colleague read what you’ve written. Ask that person to specifically note any instances of “noise” in your writing — run-on sentences, confusing words etc. Then, give your work a good polish, and you’ll be ready to go.

If you follow the above steps, you’ll be well along the road to eliminating the noise from your business writing. And your audience will be more likely to pay attention to your message. After all, you don’t want anyone reading your communications to be subjected to the equivalent of the “Ten Hours of Car Horns” video on YouTube. Trust me, it’ll only take ten seconds of those ten hours for you to decide you don’t want to hear the rest!

Contact The Language Lab for more detailed information about how we can help you to cut the noise out of your business writing.

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