Tamsin Constable

Dear Doris and Bertie, here’s our annual report.

When investment guru Warren Buffett sits down to write a formal document, he sometimes pretends he’s writing to his sisters.

Result: A jargon-free report in Plain English.

Benefit: ‘You’ll be amazed at how much smarter your readers will think you have become.’

It’s a trick that really works, and Buffet has a reputation as an A* Plain English writer. In the preface to a guide to writing aimed at the world of investment and finance, Buffet describes trying to read some of the disclosure documents that public companies file.

‘Too often, I’ve been unable to decipher just what is being said or, worse yet, had to conclude that nothing was being said,’ he writes. ‘There are several possible explanations as to why I and others sometimes stumble over an accounting note or indenture description. Maybe we simply don’t have the technical knowledge to grasp what the writer wishes to convey. Or perhaps the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. In some cases, moreover, I suspect that a less-than scrupulous issuer doesn’t want us to understand a subject it feels legally obligated to touch upon.’

‘Perhaps the most common problem, however, is that a well-intentioned and informed writer simply fails to get the message across to an intelligent, interested reader. In that case, stilted jargon and complex constructions are usually the villains.’

Buffett’s takeaway tip is this: ‘Write with a specific person in mind… I pretend that I’m talking to my sisters… Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance. They will understand plain English, but jargon may puzzle them. My goal is simply to give them the information I would wish them to supply me if our positions were reversed. To succeed, I don’t need to be Shakespeare; I must, though, have a sincere desire to inform.’

I just wonder what his real letters to Doris and Bertie are like?

Here’s the handbook.

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