This morning over breakfast I was skimming the newspaper (I know: how quaint) when I came upon an advertorial section on local real estate.
A new condo development is being built in the neighborhood; the real estate company had bought a front-page article, “Renters become buyers at The M.”
The article began well: “Former renters John Kelly and Joe Grieco didn’t have to look far to find a perfect new home to fit their needs.”
So far, so good: We’ve got characters and a story. I was in. The article went on to explain that facing rising rents, John and Joe decided it was time to buy. They looked all over the region, but ended up deciding that the best choice was right next to their rental complex. The perfect place was, indeed, The M.
That’s when the trouble started. The writer created quotes like this one to express John and Joe’s excitement over finding their dream condo:
“In addition to pricing and location, we liked the fact that the condominiums were new construction and offered the latest interior features and appointments. Added bonuses were the very well-kept ground and common areas, and kind, accommodating and professional sales, management and maintenance staff.”
Ain’t nobody talks like this. When’s the last time you heard anyone use the word “appointments”? Or how about “accommodating”? And I dare you to speak aloud the sentence beginning “Added bonuses” without stumbling or choking.
Unfortunately, there are far too many quotes like this in corporate communication, especially in press releases and internal articles quoting the CEO or other senior leaders. In the rush to make the boss sound important, communicators make him or her seem robotic. (Robots speak in perfect complete sentences; humans don’t.)
It doesn't have to be this way. We can find inspiration from the great novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard (October 11, 1925 – August 20, 2013) who was famous for his dialogue.
Here’s an example:
Neely watched her light the cigarette now, puffing away, her delicate little nostrils dilating, her pile of auburn hair shining in the lobby’s electric lights.
“You do everything he tells you?”
“Just about. He’s in there with sugar buddies.”
“What’re they up to now?”
“The usual, making money.”
“You must know Rollie’s not your type.”
“But I’m his, and that’s what counts, isn’t it?”
I know: You don’t write novels, you write intranet articles. So what can you take away from Mr. Leonard?
Just this: Try to capture the way the person you’re quoting actually talks. Make quotes simple and specific. Use quotes sparingly—only when they actually add color or texture. And if you’re tempted to insert a lot of big words, don’t do it.
As Elmore said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”