Fluent in the art of communication

In the highly competitive international world of business, grammatically correct copy just doesn’t cut it. What you need is Anglo Saxon business journalism, writes Sophy Buckley

If English is your first language and you are used to consuming your journalism in the FT, New York Times or similar, you just know when you’re reading something that hasn’t been written by a native speaker. It might have the correct spelling, verbs conjugated correctly, all the punctuation in order and even some idiom, but it will fail to engage on one level – and bother you on another. You might frequently find stuff that has been spat out of translation software, untouched by human hand.

If, for example, I run that last sentence through Google Translate, first into Italian and then back again, I get: “You could often find stuff that was spat out the translation software, untouched by human hand.” Not bad, but not correct either, and it jars.

Good writing, like good music, takes hours of practice – remember the author Malcolm Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours to master a skill. Very few people with English as a second language can muster that. And it shows, particularly if the argument or proposition is a tough one to get across in the first place. Unless the reader is demonstrating unusual levels of dedication, the whole reason for publishing may well be lost in translation.

This is a serious problem. According to Internet World Stats, English is the most widely used language on the web, accounting for 26.3 per cent of the total. Chinese is second on 20.8 per cent and the top five is rounded off with Spanish on 7.7 per cent, Arabic on 4.7 per cent and Portuguese on 4.3 per cent.


In the days before content marketing, a small Spanish company with a few sub-optimal English language pages on its corporate website was forgivable. But today, as we say here all the time, more marketing money than ever is being poured into the production of content, as a way of talking directly to target audiences for the first time.

Since English is the internet’s, er, lingua franca, then English gobbledygook from a world-class multinational is not acceptable. But there are thousands and thousands of websites with millions of words in English that are at best poor and at worst unreadable. This cuts across all industries – from asset management to oil and gas, from IT consultancy to frozen food.

Which would you prefer to read? The nearly grammatically correct:

Although easy to understand as a concept, the verb ‘transform’ is complex in its meaning. To fully take in this complexity, it suffices to associate it with our sector, that of infrastructures.

Or the culturally adept:

What does it really mean to “transform”? It means more than to “change”. We can “change” our clothes, but a “transformation” requires a radical alteration of the person wearing them.

The first paragraph is a real-life example of a published translation. We then rewrote it into something meaningful, accessible and therefore readable and engaging. We borrowed a word from adland for this process: transcreation. It’s not pretty, but it’s simpler than “translation with knobs on”.

This matters because companies use words to promote themselves. It’s about getting noticed, getting ahead of the competition, selling more stuff. It’s about creating a great impression. But having all the words in the right order with the right endings isn’t enough. A great impression is about engagement – whether you’re reading about colonoscopy equipment or researching holiday destinations. The basic truths about good writing hold true whatever the subject.

Appropriate language

The writer needs to have the audience in mind and talk to them in the appropriate language and style; the content needs to be relevant; pace, idiom and syntax must be skilfully employed; more than spellchecked, the piece should be sub-edited and given an appropriate headline that invites the reader to delve deeper; it should make its points clearly so that even a novice can get the gist. It’s Anglo Saxon business journalism and as Gladwell says, it takes years of practice to become fluent.

Fluency is exactly what the international business audience expects. They get it from the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, New York Times and the Economist, and they respond well. They go back for more. When companies ape this style, their readers come back for more, too.

In a nutshell, Anglo Saxon business journalism brings clarity to a narrative that allows a company to fine tune its pitch to its audience. For foreign companies, this cannot be achieved by translation alone. The tone, idiom and sometimes content have to be adapted, recrafted – transcreated.

Take, for example, the case of the Slovenian tourist board trying to promote the country as a destination for English-speaking travellers. It came up with what it probably thought was a clever piece of wordplay. In fact, “I feel SLOVEnia” is a disaster. It means nothing. We can see the word “love” and we might even have a couple of bars of Donna Summer playing in our head. But as wordplay goes it is lame. Worse, it is simply not what an English speaking audience would expect. It even feels a bit mucky and inappropriate.

Getting it wrong doesn’t just make a company look foolish. The consequences can be dire. One computer company lost $35m in one quarter when a manual accompanying a new product was translated into unreadable English, leading to buyers asking for their money back.

Traffic jump

Those that get it right reap the rewards. Traffic to their websites jumps – in one case we know of, site visits have quintupled with a commensurate increase in time spent on the page. Good writing helps build brand recognition and social media activity also tends to rise. Temenos, a FirstWord client, says its use of Anglo Saxon business journalism has translated into a magnificent pipeline for sales leads, with 80 per cent now coming from content.

Few PR, advertising or corporate communications departments have the skills to do this properly, yet more and more companies realise the importance and power of getting it right. It can make the difference between growing your audience and brand, and passing up all the benefits that the digital revolution has bestowed on the corporate world through the advent of content marketing.

When you’ve got something to say that you think people should hear, make sure you’re speaking their language. Make sure it’s Anglo Saxon business journalism. That way, they will listen.