Three words and phrases that should (usually) be banished forever

Whatever you’re writing – a brochure, a website, a wedding speech – you want it to connect with people. For your writing to connect, people must be paying attention. One of the sure-fire ways you can instantly grab their attention is by using language that communicates something concrete. The reverse is also true:  a sure-fire way to make people switch off is by using generic management-speak.

What is management-speak?

We all know it when we see it.  Here’s one I put together:

“Acme Corp is committed to a wide range of innovative measures for an accessible workplace.”

Management-speak is language that you can’t pin down.  It seems to say all the right things, but, ultimately says nothing in particular. We can talk about how this sentence is not plain english, or how it’s bad PR, but there’s one other thing:

It doesn’t work.

Research by Jakob Nielsen shows that, particularly on websites, people prefer objective and fact-based content. This is because they can get to the useful information more quickly. In one Nielsen study, removing promotional language caused a 27% increase in usability, which includes how much people remember of what they read.

With this in mind, we can put my management-speak sample under the microscope…

1.      ‘Is committed to’

On the surface, ‘is committed to’ sounds great. It’s a very earnest-sounding phrase. How it’s used in practice, though, is often to distance a company from accountability for meeting that commitment. So, for example…

“Acme Corp is committed to a wide range of innovative measures for an accessible workplace.”

We can test the integrity of this statement with a scenario. Peta Shaw works for Acme Corp and has a profound hearing impairment. She finds phone conferences with their Melbourne office extremely difficult. Peta asks management to use video conferencing so she can lip-read, but they say they don’t have budget for this.

Acme’s management can still profess the commitment, without any requirement that they act on it.

What you can use instead

If your company is really serious about a principle, say ‘we will…’ or ‘we do…’  It will be easier for people to hold your business accountable, but you will gain respect – and stand out from all the other businesses who are still hedging their bets.

2.     ‘A wide range of’

This phrase is often used to describe a business’s services. I think that its growing popularity stems from its capacity to suggest flexibility and breadth, without nailing anything down. The issue is that, when people are approaching web content, they are often looking for concrete information: can this business help me with my enquiry, or should I look elsewhere? ‘A wide range of’ doesn’t convey useful information  – it just adds filler to your sentence.

What you can use instead

In business communication, you often want to indicate open-endedness, but this can be done just as easily (and more succinctly) with that old stalwart ‘including.’  For example:

‘The measures we’ve introduced to create an accessible workplace include:

  • X…
  • Y…’

3.     Innovative

Innovation is such an inherently positive word that it’s hard to imagine anyone not wanting to be innovative. Maybe there’s an anxiety underlying this: you’re either innovative, or you’re left behind. Three things to consider:

1)     For most businesses, innovation is only a small part of their day-to-day reality. I’m writing this in Red Brick Café in Curtin, Canberra. They’re playing soothing folk music. The décor is standard hipster, with exposed brick and concrete floors. The coffee is like many others I’ve had. There’s actually nothing innovative about it. And it’s great.

2)     Companies that do use ‘innovative’ often don’t back up their claims. They don’t say why they’re innovative. Instead, they make the statement then move on to the next adjective.

3)     Like so much management-speak, ‘innovative’ has become a cliché. Its value – its capacity to say something concrete – has been leeched out of it. Like a teabag that’s been used three hundred times.

What you can say instead

If your business has something that is genuinely different, simple words like ‘new’ or ‘improved’ will often get your point across just as well.

… Usually

Why did I call this post ‘… should (usually) be banished forever’?  There are very few absolute rules in communication. I like the quote from British writer George Orwell, where he sets out six rules for clear writing, then says ‘break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’

Sometimes a business genuinely is innovative. If I’m writing copy for them, and it’s the best fit, then I’ll write that they’re innovative. But I’ll make sure we say why.

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