In Getting Ahead, Your Words Count

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A career in investment banking presupposes that you're good with numbers. To get ahead, you have to be good with words, too.

That's not to say you have to be F. Scott Fitzgerald, but you do have to convey your thoughts, plans and data clearly, concisely and in a jargon-free style that any audience can understand. Plus, you want to write in a way that makes you look good.

So get the mechanics right. Pay attention to things like subject/verb agreement, avoiding the passive voice and keeping verb tenses consistent. Use correct punctuation and formatting. And spelling. Oh, spelling.

Maureen Tierney, an independent management consultant in New York and former associate dean of the business school at Fordham University, says poor writing - even in as informal a medium as e-mail - conveys a negative and unprofessional message about the sender. "I really get burned when students send me e-mails that are a total wreck," she says. "You meet them and know they're capable of so much more."

'Hard Work'

Brandt Johnson, a former investment banker and co-president of Syntaxis, a New York communication-skills training firm, runs writing workshops in conjunction with major investment-banking clients (who, ironically or not, prefer not to see their names in print). He tells workshop attendees that "good writing is simply hard work. It takes a lot more work to winnow things down into what people need to know. That's particularly challenging with more analytical topics."

It's "the responsibility of the communicator of the idea to interpret it, digest it and deliver it in such a way that it is easy for the reader to understand," Johnson says. "Give careful consideration to your intended audience and how sophisticated they are."

So, before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, he advises just sitting and synthesizing the information you want to present. "Give careful thought as to what really matters in that information and why." Only after you've done that should you write it down.

And rewrite it. And rewrite it until the prose is crystal-clear and the ideas flow in order of their importance.

"Get early in your document to why the information matters," he instructs. "I'll be much more likely to continue reading something if I know why I'm reading it."

In addition, Johnson says, "Don't use more words than you need to convey an idea. So often good ideas are buried" beneath a ton of high-falutin' language. Pretentious language only clouds (we could have said "obfuscates") your point and alienates your reader. It's far better to be conversational in tone. That way, Johnson says, you'll "be a responsible steward of your reader's time."

"The content - the idea - is critical but not enough," he says. "The execution of that idea is just as, if not more, important."

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