I’ve been a business writer for a long time; long enough to admit that it’s kept me (happily) on the bright side of a penny. Long enough, too, to realize (less happily) that I’ve gotten lazy. It didn’t happen all at once. At least I hope it didn’t. I suspect it’s been a slow, insidious creep, unperceived until quite recently. When it smacked me in the head.
I’ll cut to the chase: A lot of business writing – the majority of it penned with the best of intentions – sucks. Worse, I’ve written my fair share of it.
Let me qualify my judgmentalism. By “sucks”, I don’t mean to imply that the writing is necessarily bad. Sure, a ton of it is, but much of it is good (even really really good): It serves the customer, the reader, the prospective buyer; it’s informative, entertaining, well thought through, and well crafted.
“Sucks” is short-hand for stale. Trite. Repetitive. Uninspired. Tired. In my defense – and the defense of every professional writer who must create prolific prose at high volume and quick cadence (Solidarity, my tribe!) – missing the mark is inevitable. Even Cooperstown Hall of Famers don’t get wood on the ball more than 50% of the time … and usually it’s less.
But as readers, you don’t have to care. Information is plentiful and accessible, with every bit of it continuously jockeying for best position to be found. If you don’t like what you’re reading because it’s a bit “so-what-y” or hackneyed or useless, your trusty search engine will serve up a gazillion more options in milliseconds flat.
No business – or business writer – wants their stuff to fall victim to that scenario.
Which brings me to the afore-mentioned head-smacking epiphany. Recently, my colleagues and I embarked on a whirlwind tour of business writing, ours and others. Web pages, white papers, eBooks, blog posts, press releases, case studies, keynote decks. You name it, we surely looked at a lot of it.
It’s time for an embargo on business-speak.
A full court press is needed to quash words and phrases that pervade every type of business content and are so stale they make my grandma’s 50-year-old slice of frozen wedding cake look moist and delicious.
Too hyperbolic? Maybe, but no less absolute: It’s time to give some words and word pairings a rest; a decommissioning – even if only temporarily – from our go-to business vernacular.
We all have our personal favorites for derision. Here, in no particular order, is the list of words and phrases your Act-On writing team will do its darnedest to cease-and-desist. For a while, anyway. Call it a New Year’s Resolution after the hangover has faded and lucidity has returned.
- Empower. It’s a shame this meaty verb has been so overplayed. It now falls into the category of “like every song on my iPod”; I like all of them, but have heard them so often that I can no longer stand listening to any of them.
- Rock star. Unless you’re really talking about a bona fide rock star. The descriptor was fun while it lasted, but terms like “marketing rock star” and “social media rock star” have outlived their novelty. Let’s roll this one back to those instances when we’re referencing the charismatic and the leather-clad: Jagger. Joplin. Bowie. Tyler. Hynde. I’ll even accept Bon Jovi. Also, the Mark Wahlberg movie.
- Superstar. For the same reasons and rationale as rock star. Maybe add Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson to the list. Michael and Madonna, too.
- Enable. Does anyone really want to be an enabler? Worse, does anyone want to help to enable?
- Leverage. Frankly I don’t even know what this means anymore. It’s vaporware to my ears.
- XYZ is a challenge. Would that this statement wasn’t applied, carte blanche, to every conceivable business topic, I wouldn’t have an issue with it. Trouble is, it’s used as the setup to turn countless content into cautionary tales that can be remedied only by using Brand X’s product or service. Not everything is a challenge. Or maybe everything is a challenge. But at the end of the day, there’s got to be a fresher approach to differentiating yourself.
- At the end of the day. Can you feel the déjà vu? Yea, I know.
- Actionable data. Also actionable insight and actionable intelligence. There was a time these phrases were meaningful differentiators … the promise that clear understanding and “next steps” could be gleaned from the muddy waters of math and confounding data points. That time was 1988. Today using data and taking action is an expectation; a job requirement. These terms no longer offer much impact or value to the conversation.
- Achieve business success. It’s so desperately cliché that I’ll not waste many more letters to talk about it.
- Easily and effectively. Also easy and effective. Unoriginality isn’t the sin here. Speciousness is. Since every brand claims its widgets and whatsits are easy and effective … and since I’m old enough to have found this to be wrong a helluva lot … these words don’t evoke trust, they evoke skepticism.
- Gives you everything you need. Pure BS. Nothing and no one delivers everything I need. Nor should they be expected to.
- Seamless. As in seamless integration, processes, implementation. Nothing is seamless. Even my seamless tube socks have seams. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In my experience, customers don’t expect things to be seamless. They expect them to be valuable, of quality, supported, explained, useable, helpful. Making all that happen usually requires something get stitched somewhere. How about “well-sewn seams” or “imperceptible seams” or “seams so perfect and uniform, you’d swear they were done by the finest Persian rug maker?” Anyone? Bueller?
- A new paradigm (or paradigm nouveau if you are French, or pretentious). Are you old enough to remember when this became a cliché the first time? (And since the word was first used in its contemporary meaning around 1962, that may have been in 1963.)
- Content is king. Numbers are king. Analysis is king. Whatever. Save the royalty analogies for stories about actual royalty. Please.
- Bandwidth. As in: “I ain’t got none.”
- Using nouns as verbs: “He’ll solution that.” “I plan to gift them with candy.”
But really, enough about us. We’re boring and fixated on semicolons and tired of talking about what we don’t like. What do YOU think? What shall we nominate as the most over-blown (or over-used, over-hyped, over-worked) word in marketing today?
Editor’s note: Be kind to these battered buzzwords, these burned-out, jaded, fatigued, dessicated, crushed cliches. Let them rest, for they are tired. (Apologies to the great journalist Heywood Hale Broun. If there is an ever-so-faint resemblance to his “Be Kind to Adjectives” essay, it is most certainly in humble homage.