The music of words

Violin being playedMost business writing is read silently by individuals. Spoken texts delivered to groups of listeners, such as speeches and conference papers, form only a fraction of the millions of sentences produced in workplaces every day. Nevertheless, the way a text ‘sounds’, even in the reader’s head, can help or hinder delivery of the intended message.

A writer’s first aim should be to keep the reader reading. It doesn’t matter how worthy your content if readers lose interest halfway through. The most basic element of music—rhythm—is important here. Variety of rhythm, such as contrasting sentence lengths, can help hold the reader’s interest. Interminable sentences with numerous added clauses and qualifications can obscure the main idea, while too many short sentences in a row can feel choppy and disjointed. On the other hand, one short, punchy sentence can bring home your main point, particularly if you place it at the end of a paragraph or section, where it is more likely to be remembered.

Pleasing or interesting rhythm is often based on repetition, whether of a single word or a grammatical structure: ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. Alliteration—the repetition of a consonant—can be used for emphasis: ‘… all for the greater good …’, ‘safety and security’, ‘all that glitters is not gold’. Many famous brand names cash in on the memorable quality of alliteration: Coca-Cola, Dunkin’ Donuts, PayPal.

In music, variety of dynamics (loud and soft) and tone colour (achieved by contrasting instruments for example) help to hold the listener’s interest and emphasise an important melody, or line in a song lyric. It’s hard to miss a theme blasted out by three trombones and a tuba when the rest of the movement is played by the violins and flutes. In writing we can add colour by using vivid imagery or metaphors. These are common in business contexts: ‘real-estate bubble’, ‘Wall Street Crash’ or ‘glass ceiling’. But please take care: many metaphors have become stale through over-use. Two that particularly annoy me are ‘my journey’ and ‘going forward’.

So, even if you are writing a report, blog post or letter, which will never be proclaimed from a pulpit, take the time to read it out loud to yourself. You may be surprised by what you hear.

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