Writing Tips: when bad language is Not a four-letter word

ImageLet’s start from the top. Arguably, life’s too short, so this is an appeal to hearts and minds to raise awareness going forward. It’s not rocket science to avoid language not fit for purpose. So let’s think outside the box to create sea change, a quantum leap and a paradigm shift.

That first paragraph comprised 51 words, of which 33 were tired, overused phrases and the rest were there only as filler.

Yes, we’re talking of clichés, used as much in the business world as are four-letter words in a bad argument. But while most of us won’t Imagetolerate swearing in a civil conversation, we don’t seem to tire of tolerating clichés in communications. How vigilant are we in making sure we don’t use them ourselves?

Unfortunately, in the world of business, as well as communications, including PR, marketing and advertising, there remains a great tendency to use clichés instead of writing content that works well simply by being clear, to the point and providing value and evidence for the reader.

ImageSome phrases are so hackneyed and tediously predictable they induce brain freeze or a reading coma, if not a clichéd rolling of one’s eyes.

Over the course of a day, never mind a week, you’ll bump up against companies on their websites and in the media (as failed soundbites) referring to themselves in one or more of the following ways: ‘award-winning’, ‘leading edge’, ‘first class’, ‘quality time’, ‘unique’, ‘cutting edge’, ‘best in class’, ‘delighted’, ‘first rate’, ‘let’s be clear’, ‘world-class’, ‘game-changer’, ‘at the end of the day’, ‘to be honest with you’ and any one of those that began this article. There are more of these horrors in the writer and journalist John Rentoul’s Banned List, for those who enjoy true horror writing.

Sadly, those tiresome words and phrases are not the only bad language. In our professional world of communications we have developed an endless appetite for jargon and use the casual language of exploitation and manipulation.Image

Few of us tend to reject it precisely because it is so omnipresent. We don’t question militaristic-sounding, technocratic, bureaucratic blather that smacks of Big Brother, even though ironically such terms are all meant to be in aid of communication, whether through marketing, PR, advertising or in general business communications.

We are meant to be reaching for understanding, to encourage sharing, develop loyalty and long-term relationships based on meaningful content. Yet the words we use to achieve that? “Native advertising”, when we mean advertising that has merit for the reader; “targets” instead of potential clients; “stakeholders” for persons or groups of interest, “penetration” instead of engaging,Image “capturing” instead of gaining new clients, “audiences” when we mean people of interest, and much else – and worse – besides.

Surely it’s not surprising that there remain so many businesses, small, large and even global, that still don’t get it and fail to build relationships of loyalty and value between them and their “targets” when the language used to consider clients and potential clients is based on exploitation and hunting?

We are in the business of human communication to share understanding, for whatever end or purpose. Instead, however, we have people in companies thinking and behaving in a corporate rather than an empathetic way, which not only dehumanises them, but it also alienates those with whom they wish to engage.

Alternatively, consider the behaviour – the actions, communications and customer service – of successful companies, such as Ben & Jerry’s, innocent drinks, Dove and Southwest Airlines. The one thing they have in common abundance is that they’re all genuinely friendly and their words and actions reflect this. They sound and write with personality, passion and interest in their work and with their clients and potential clients.

They care about the environment and the impact they make. They engage with their customers in a manner that’s fun, caring, understanding and worthwhile. They respond to any issues or concerns. They want to contribute and encourage positive activity from others as well as themselves. They do their work responsibly and are part of their communities. They value their employees as much as those who value their brands.

Their words, speech and actions all reflect this personable approach. With them, there’s no room for cliché, double-talk and jargon. Rather, they know they have so much to celebrate and gain from by simply using real words and phrases based on meaning and human qualities. In brief, their word is their bond and character.

All of these are examples of the ways in which they communicate with passion and sincerity and, unsurprisingly, their words convince customers who see this and on that basis they become loyal to those brands.

The next time you’re tempted to use bad language in your writing? Please: think again.

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