Style vs. Substance
July 11, 2022
Like most people these days, I have a love-hate relationship with airports.
On our way home from Rome a few weeks ago, we had the good fortune to spend a few hours in one of those semi-exclusive, somewhat fancy airport lounges. My partner, Richard, and I travel with bicycles, so we like to leave lots of extra time to get through the “oversize baggage” security. Being able to relax in a lounge before our flight is much appreciated.
That morning, the idea was to have a leisurely breakfast and a coffee or two before joining the general chaos that passes for air travel these days.
As I said, that was the idea. The reality? Not so much.
Let me explain. On our outbound trip from Toronto, we used a QR code to order a snack in the Air Canada lounge. We scanned. Our nibbles arrived. Pretty simple. Pretty handy.
In Rome? No such luck.
Instead, in a lounge filled with 50+ breakfast-deprived travellers, there were no QR codes in sight. Just one server. With a pencil and a rumpled little sheaf of papers.
Mind you, since this is Italy, home of high-end fashion brands like Armani, Gucci, Prada and Valentino, the server was stylishly dressed. Crisp white shirt, neat black trousers, funky shoes. He also had a breezy air of confidence.
He certainly created a lot of breeze. For he was a man in constant motion.
We watched in some awe as he spun around the lounge like the Tasmanian Devil in Looney Tunes. Il Signor was here, there and everywhere. He’d grab his pencil from behind his right ear, scribble an order on his little piece of paper, spin on his heels, make a beeline for the kitchen, then disappear. Several moments later, he’d reappear, eggs and bacon in hand, and dart across the lounge to a seated traveller.
That might sound efficient, but with all that whizzing about, it was next to impossible to get Il Signor’s attention. We could actually see people plotting and strategizing: Look, look, there he is…go this way…no, that way…here he comes…head him off at the kitchen door…yes, yes…oh…no, we missed him again!
Richard, whose first degree was in engineering, was baffled. How could a country that gave us aqueducts and Leonardo da Vinci be so hopeless at something like this, he asked? (Don’t get him started on Italian way-finding signage—or “no-way no-finding”, as he calls it.)
Still, it could have been worse. Much worse. The server could have been surly. Put upon. He’d have had good reason to be. I might have been. Had I been on duty in a crowded lounge that morning….well, let’s just say, the whole situation might have got my goat.
But not so for our Italian Gentleman. Il Signor was absolutely charming. To a fault, he greeted everyone with a broad smile, a twinkle in his eye, and a cheery, heartfelt “Prego!”
And that attitude, that genuine friendliness, made all the difference. It was the secret sauce that managed to melt us all, no matter how deeply we yearned for a simple omelette.
When we finally managed to corner Il Signor, we smiled along with him. When he eventually delivered our eggs, we thanked him profusely – grazie mille!!! And we thanked him again – grazie mille!!! – when we left the lounge to board our flight. Because somehow, despite its decidedly dodgy beginnings, this little lounge experience had been FUN!
I will say that as the hours passed, a system of sorts was established. Somehow, we patrons came to the collective realization that if we queued in a somewhat orderly fashion in front of the kitchen door, we’d get our orders in more quickly—and with far fewer calories expended than had we chased the human vortex around the lounge. But “the system”, such as it was, was a total accident.
That’s the thing. In modern-day Italy, style is (almost) everything. Whether something actually works seems to be beside the point.
However, when it comes to writing—and especially business writing—you can’t rely on style alone.
Yes, you want your copy to look good.
How copy appears matters. It can often mean the difference between someone deciding to read or not.
Your copy should not look daunting. A page should not, for example, consist of two massive paragraphs, with sentences tightly strung from left to right in a “fully-justified” manner.
If you want a reader to approach your copy with ease, with interest and enthusiasm, you’ll need to invite her to come on in, curl up on a seat by the fire, and settle in.
Inviting copy is copy that breathes. For example, it uses shorter paragraphs and a ragged right margin to create white space. White space gives your reader a welcome break and the energy to keep moving forward.
Second, you want your copy to sound good.
This is not so much about slavishly following formal grammar rules—although grammar is needed if we’re going to combine words in ways that make sense. No, this is more about using words that work. Interesting words. Different words. Above all, clear words.
Generally, clear words are simple, everyday words. Words your readers are familiar with. When readers encounter unfamiliar or complex words, they tend to slow down. They may even skip over the terms they don’t immediately understand, hoping to find meaning in the rest of the sentence. Or not …
And clear words don’t rely on jargon, because jargon can confuse, confound and alienate large swaths of your readers. As Josh Bernoff says in Writing Without Bullshit:
“… when you write in jargon, you effectively divide the world into two groups. One is the insider group—the people, who, along with you, know what these special words mean. The other, much larger group is the world outside your bubble.”
As for the so-called insider group, when push comes to shove, apparently even they prefer familiar words.
How do we know this?
A 2021 study of 20,000 published papers about cave science found that the most highly cited papers—by other Brainiac cave scientists—were the ones that didn’t use any specialized terminology in the title and kept jargon to less than 2% of the text in the abstract. Jargon-laden papers were cited far less often. So there! (For the record, cave science generally leaves me cold, but a good paper on grottoes? That could make my day.)
But here’s the most important thing: Your copy also has to “work good”—or, for all my fellow grammarians out there—work well.
Copy that works well is copy that does a job. Just what that job is depends on what you’re writing and who you’re writing for. Your copy may inform, explain or educate. It may clarify or persuade. It may start a conversation or spur a reader on to action.
In the business world, a pack of pretty phrases, no matter how artfully arranged on a page, is seldom worth the effort. As our friend Mr. Bernoff says:
“If you don’t know the action you seek, how will you know if you succeeded? And if you don’t expect your reader to do anything in particular after reading what you’ve written, why write at all?”
So … before you write, ask yourself a few key questions: Why am I writing? What do I hope to accomplish? What exactly do I want my reader to do once they’ve read my beautifully crafted sentences?
If you can’t come up with some good solid answers—if like our Italian Gentleman, you find yourself erring on the side of style, not substance—then it’s likely time to pause. Otherwise, don’t be surprised if your readers end up chasing after your words, only to come up with ideas of their own.
The period may seem like an easy punctuation mark to master…but beware of the rules when you have multiple marks.