Romer’s Rule: The Narrow Knife

World Bank chief economist, Paul Romer, was relieved of his management role in the bank’s prestigious research arm after pressing staff to tighten up their writing.

Romer, 61, later admitted in an interview with Bloomberg that it was “possible that I was focusing too much on the precision of the communications and not enough on the feelings my messages would invoke.” World Bank researchers balked at Romer’s internal memo refusing to publish a report if the frequency of “and” exceeded 2.6% of the total word count, the going rate among academic research. The Economist’s blog about the row crowed to readers that “and” was a mere 1.5% of its latest print edition, while the World Bank

Romer’s removal is clearly a political rather than rhetorical move, but there are good reasons why his banner should be picked up by a more tactful individual within the World Bank.

Bankspeak”

The problem with the World Bank’s writing predates Romer. A recent study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab described how the bank’s reports have gone from simple, plain language to full of jargon. The report’s authors called this “Bankspeak”. An excerpt from their report illustrates the transition.

Here is how the Bank’s Report described the world in 1958:

The Congo’s present transport system is geared mainly to the export trade, and is based on river navigation and on railroads which lead from river ports into regions producing minerals and agricultural commodities. Most of the roads radiate short distances from cities, providing farm-to-market communications. In recent years road traffic has increased rapidly with the growth of the internal market and the improvement of farming methods.”

And here is the Report from a half century later, in 2008:

Leveling the playing field on global issues

Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.”

Relevance and persuasion are lost in such self-referential writing. The Stanford researchers described it as writing in code, “detached from everyday language”.

Romer’s challenge to the bank’s research staff was to return to simpler language and in so doing, reach more people. In an institution recognized for research on parts of the world unloved by most academic economic research, Bankspeak obscures insights that could improve developing economies. A 2014 internal memo noted that of 1,611 World Bank reports examined, 32% were never downloaded.

The narrow knife

Anyone who has worked in corporations knows this problem is not unique. Every day, good ideas are lost in emails and presentations written in Bankspeak.

Romer knew this well, telling his staff their reports must “be narrow to penetrate deeply.” I recently received an email from a client, and at the bottom was a note saying their company had explicitly committed to writing emails no longer than three sentences. Anything beyond that was to be included in an attachment or a separate email. Her company understood Romer’s lesson about the narrow knife.

The burden to sharpen writing often falls to corporate communications, public relations or marketing professionals. A few years back, I sat in a top-tier bank’s offices with the above-named groups for an excellent training on their new tone of voice. The skilled trainer showed actual examples of the bank’s writing to illustrate bad habits and how to fix them.

Unfortunately, habits are hard to break. Communications and marketing teams need help. Human resources, long known for training sessions on inclusivity and innovation, must be brought in to improve written communication as habits are being formed.

Clear writing and clear thinking are inseparable, and as such new hires, management trainees and those being promoted into managerial roles should all be shown how to convince with clarity. Early training gives staff time to practice good writing and creates a base of shared expectations that forms part of a firm’s culture.

The alternative, as Romer can attest, is a much thornier process.

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