Beware the Jabberwock: How too much of today’s business writing gets lost gyring and gimbling in the wabe

Beware the Jabberwock: How too much of today’s business writing gets lost gyring and gimbling in the wabe

As a big fan of Lewis Carroll, aka Charles Dodgson, I’ve always been fascinated at the playfulness of his prose and poetry, filled with alliteration and onomatopoetic references that trip off the tongue while still managing to convey clear meaning in a whimsical way.

Unfortunately, much of the business writing we see today is filled with mind-numbing, boring jargon seemingly designed to avoid conveying much of anything at all. It’s as if writers are following the advice of Humpty Dumpty when he said to Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean— neither more nor less.”

Truth be told, some of the best writing we see is about bad writing.

A recent example is Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway’s skewering of a cliché-crammed sentence perpetrated by Mondelez. The offending sentence appeared in the company’s news release on its search for – what else – a new head of marketing.

Kellaway’s post-mortem, “Mondelez serves up 10 business clichés in one sentence,” makes a strong case for placing a moratorium on some of the commonly used hackneyed expressions bandied about by today’s communications professionals.

Kellaway’s column got us thinking about other words and phrases that are among the most egregiously over-used, misused and overwrought in corporate communications, public relations and marketing.

We could go on at great length about this vapid and the vacuous vocabulary that creeps into much business writing, but here are seven examples that we nominate, along with suggestions for alternatives:

Leverage

As in “leverage assets” or “leverage content.”

Alternative: “use”—which, we realize, goes against the temptation to use the biggest words in our arsenal. After all, anyone can use the word “use”—do you really need a professional for that?

But resist that impulse to bypass short, simple words and sentences. They can be the most powerful. After all, perhaps the most evocative verse in the entire Bible is, “Jesus wept.”

Integrated

Coming from a company like Wilks Communications Group, “integrated” means offering a range of services—such as digital advertising, media relations, and brand marketing—that, when implemented simultaneously, raise the profile of your company.

But for very large companies, with a lot of operational pieces that are not necessarily tied together day-to-day, using the word is a stretch and perhaps inaccurate.

Alternative: Full-service

Strategic

Possibly one of the most overused words in business, “strategic” has become a bona fide leader in meaningless “white noise.” These days, it seems, everyone is strategic. But the term is often ascribed to actions that are tactical or are not part of a larger, cohesive effort.

Alternative: delete references to “strategic” and see if you need to insert a new word or phrase. Sometimes, you won’t. Other times, you will be liberated to show a strategic approach, instead of touting it without offering any evidence.

Innovative

To measure up to the word’s meaning, you must apply something new to a pre-existing process or product. You improve upon it in a fresh way. Assertions of innovation can also be a cover for intellectual squatters staking their claim to territory that’s not really their own.

It’s a form of self-image insurance: if you’re in a marketing department and don’t say that you are innovative, what are you selling? Nowhere will you see, “We’re just a cheaper knock-off of our industry’s true innovators!”

Alternative: offer specific details, rather than vague claims.

Impact

And don’t forget this word’s diabolical cousin: “impactful.”

OK, so maybe that’s extreme, though we’re not the only ones who warily regard “impactful” as a scourge upon any sentence in which it appears.

Alternative: specify the results that occur from an action or series of actions. Those descriptions, especially when they tell of lives improved, resonate much more than using the “I” word.

Game-Changer / Game-Changing

Just say no!

Alternative: take a few seconds to think—and no, we’re not even going to refer to any box that you should think outside of. That’s so late-1900s.

Disruptive

Uber, Airbnb, Facebook and Netflix—all of these companies are genuinely disruptive, creating new markets, upending entire business categories, and changing the way we live.

You’re the fifth coffee shop in town? Having a new flavor is nice, but that doesn’t make you disruptive.

Alternative: There are plenty of ways in which you can still tell your story without misusing this particular buzz word. Focus on telling it well.

Space won’t permit us to address adequately other worn-out words and phrases, but we would be remiss if we didn’t issue these dishonorable mentions: unique, utilize, align/alignment, optimize/optimization, synergy/synergize, etc.

If you review all the words and phrases above, you will notice all aim to convey that someone, or something, is special—set apart from the rest of the pack. They emphasize “differentiation,” yet another buzz word that we’d warn against. The problem is they achieve exactly the opposite.

Don’t regard this as a blacklist of words you can never touch again. Rather, recognize that words matter and when they are thrown around in places where they don’t belong, they stop mattering.

One way to tackle this problem is to retain a firm, such as Wilks Communication Group, with the ability to create well-written pieces that say something, mean something, and do something to advance your organization in the direction of its goals.