Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Write Like Warren

People don't think of Warren Buffett as a great writer. They should.

Buffett revolutionized the company annual report, making it into a disarmingly readable document full of honesty, candor, clear thinking and self-deprecating humor. There's hardly any straight talk in the business world--and even less in the investment world--but Buffett stands out as an enormous exception. He writes in order to inform, and he takes obvious pleasure teaching his readers about finance, accounting, business strategy and investing.

What's most striking of all about Buffett's writing is the cutesy and decidedly un-billionaire-like trick he uses. Each year, when Buffett sits down to write his annual letter to investors, he starts out with the words "Dear Doris and Bertie."

Doris and Bertie are Buffett's sisters. Both are shareholders in Buffett's company, Berkshire Hathaway, but they're just regular people, without any special expertise in finance or accounting. Buffett writes his CEO letters directly to his sisters to remind him to avoid the jargon and doublespeak typical of bad business writing.

This technique is an enormous gift to corporate ethics and to plain speech. It reminds us all to keep it simple, be honest, and remember who our audience is.

If you want to make your language clear, simple and accessible, start off your writing task with an adaptation of Buffett's technique. Write to your mother, your daughter, or your little brother. And then watch how much easier it is to speak plainly, clearly and with candor.

Buffett's technique, as cutesy as it may seem, gave rise to the investment world's best and most insightful writing.

PS: If you want to see exactly what I mean, you can obtain a free public domain PDF of Buffett's collected writings at this link. And if that link ever breaks, feel free to email me and I'll happily send you a copy of mine.