“If you use these words in your marketing, your marketing is bad and you should feel bad.” The author — a branding and marketing consultant — reeled off his list of trigger words. Then helpfully provided his contact details, should you need someone to rescue you from a pit of self-loathing.

But does it even make sense to have banned word lists? And should you trust experts who hand them to you?

Here’s what I would’ve called that post: “If you use these words in your marketing, it’s often not a good idea, but sometimes it is; it just depends, and besides, you’re doing the best you can, so who am I to make you feel bad?”

Less catchy; more honest.

On the outside looking down

There is definitely such a thing as bad writing, and a place for feedback to make it better. The issue is how that judgement is made — and who gets to make it.

Any professional writer has expressions that set their teeth on edge. I get twitchy whenever I see “Learnings” and ‘digital disruption.’ My colleagues and I often gripe to each other about words that give us the irrits. That’s just shoptalk, or group therapy.

Here’s what I don’t do: use my personal opinion as a stick with which to beat other writers about the head. In my work as a writing coach, I’ve seen the effects: struggling writers who second-guess themselves at every sentence. They’re terrified of using the wrong words, but don’t know what the right words are.

When an ‘expert’ tells you that a particular word is evil, ask them: how do you know? Do they have audience research to back them up? Or are they projecting their small opinions onto a big screen?

User-experience research taught me: it’s impossible to judge the success of communication from the outside. To decide if words work, we have to take the perspective of the reader.

In a café, I overheard two middle-aged exec types talking. ‘We need to leverage those synergies,” said one. “Agreed,” said the other. I had no absolutely no idea what they were talking about.

Now I could label that conversation a business buzz-word bonanza, and pull out my red pen. But those words were not for me. They came out of a shared culture — one where both parties are used to management theory and comfortable talking in abstractions.

Leveraging synergies may not be my idea of beautiful writing, but who cares what I think? It meets the ultimate test of communication: does it work?

What words should you use?

“The best copywriting is mostly transcribing,” said copywriting legend Sean D’Souza in a recent interview. Here’s what he means: we listen before we write. We pay attention to the language our audience uses, and put those words to work.

That listening will look different for each project:

  • Interviewing clients/audience members
  • Sitting in on call centre interviews
  • Reviewing contact centre data
  • Search analytics
  • Reading online forum posts on the topic you’re writing about.
  • Reading content created by the people you want to reach

This research can be a multi-week research phase, or half an hour of googling. Listening scales really well. What you end up with is a vocabulary you can trust.

Better writing advice

Writing advice often tells you to draft with your reader in mind. It’s in all the textbooks. What I tend to see, though, is that this principle is bundled together with other rules — don’t use passive voice; don’t use jargon…

We need to redefine the priorities here. One rule — write for the person you want to reach — comes before all else.

What does this mean for writing traners?  My role becomes guiding you through discovering what your audience needs to hear. Planning your argument, writing coherently, and editing — we cover that too, but all towards that one goal. The service is far more coaching and much less lecturing.

Writing at large

When you start writing by listening, there’s no more fumbling in the dark. No more terror that the word police will come knocking one night, with their torches and black dictionaries. Instead, you can write, being sure of the ground you stand on. Because the words you choose are the words your readers are waiting to hear.

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