Some words. On words.

Words are tricky. So are calligraphy pens.
Words are tricky. So are calligraphy pens.

I write for a living. My day job is in a corporate communications department, as an internal communication channels manager, for those of you who understand what that means.For those of you who don’t, I basically write and edit copy all day long with a bit of project management thrown in just to keep things interesting. I like my job a lot, but sometimes I get a bit cranky with people.

Why? Because words.

Now this is ironic, as I love words (you may have already gathered from my geek-girl ramblings). But in a business environment, words can suck.Why? Because some of the people I’ve dealt with over the years simply want to publish stuff that makes them look good, or important. This is totally understandable. I get how the corporate world works. But there’s this myth that to achieve this, you have to write in a way that is pompous and confusing.

My view? Do this and your communication will fail, or at the very least you’ll have some irate readers.

Write like a human being

When I’m doing the writing myself, I try to keep it as informal as possible to begin with. And when someone else sends me stuff they’ve already written, I gleefully edit their copy before publication. I quite like this bit as I can be lazy and someone else’s copy is an easier start-point than a blank page.

I also dislike this bit as it’s always where arguments discussions start. I say “Let’s change some of these words you have written so people can understand what you’re saying, quickly” and the other person says something like “No! By using many big words I look smart, and you are implying your readers are stupid if you think we should simplify things. We must use many big words. And lots of capital letters at random points throughout the message. Plus the CEO/CFO/CIO/Superman signed this off and he’s the BOSS so you can’t change it, minion.”

The rebuttal

At this point I usually end up calmly standing my ground and saying something like: “I absolutely don’t think our readers are stupid: I think they’re very busy. If they can skim this in 5 seconds and understand it in 10, there’s a better chance they’ll do what you’re asking them to. If they have to spend 5 minutes interpreting something they’ll either give up or get really pissed off. Also, capital letters everywhere confuse the eye, mo fo.”

I wish I could say the last part more often but I try and keep it clean at work. You get the gist. Most of the time I am cheerfully persistent and steer the stakeholder towards better copy getting published (yay for better results!), but sometimes the other person gets their way and I have to publish some material with awful words in it. And this makes me sad.

My blacklisted words/terms 

I could make a much longer list but keep it simple. These are the four worst-offenders in business writing, in my opinon. I get a bit ragey when I read these terms in copy.

  1. Step-change
    e.g. “We’re delivering a step-change in process for better customer service”. Just say change, for the love of god. Just say “we’re changing things for the better.”
  2. Actively
    e.g. “We’re actively listening to your feedback.” Just delete the word ‘actively’ and your sentence still works! #revelation
  3. Culture Change
    This is ironic as I find culture change and employee engagement work really interesting. But I cringe when I see it written down like it’s a ‘thing’ to be ‘done’, a la “Hurrah! We must do A Culture Change. We will make a Culture Change Programme to help our employees make the Culture Change and then we will talk about how the Culture Change Programme has delivered the Culture Change that it set out to do. Let’s make sure whenever we talk about it, it’s in a ten-page document with lots of capitals.” As the Kiwis say: Yeah-nah
  4. Strive
    e.g. “We strive to always deliver fresh, high quality produce.” I saw this one on a note in a staff canteen once. Um, what? Either you do or you don’t. Putting ‘strive to’ in there sounds like a cop-out clause. As Yoda says, “Do or do not, there is no try.”

The ultimate sin-sentence, is one I swear I’ve actually seen at least three times in my six years as an internal communicator: “We’re actively embedding a Culture Change in the organisation, while striving to deliver a step-change in service and process.” Wow.

Like I said, I like my job a lot so this vent is of a cheerful nature. But words, people. Words. They’re tricky – use them carefully.

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Listening to:

Atlantic City, Bruce Springsteen.

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