By, Sheryl Bass
As a lifelong wordsmith, former social worker, journalist and current PR professional, I have learned that word choices matter. In the mental health world, counselors, like myself, used techniques like “reflective listening” and “reframing” to artfully paraphrase client problems so that they felt confident enough to tackle them. As a journalist, I learned that the purpose of communication is to transmit thoughts and ideas. If you are speaking or writing and your listener or reader isn’t comprehending your message, you have failed.
Now, as a PR specialist, what irritates me and many of my colleagues is jargon -- not industry verbiage, like medical or legal terminology, that keeps everyone on the same page in an operating or courtroom or well-intentioned clichés like… well, “on the same page.” What I am referring to here is “corporate speak” or ill-fitting, often multisyllabic words designed to make the speaker or writer appear more intelligent. Like the use of “deploy” in a nonmilitary context, or adding “ize” or “ate” to a word to make it a verb—“operationalize,” “synergize” or the ironic “disambiguate” or other imprecise words and phrases like “leverage,” “vertical,” “granular” and “drill down.”
Ever heard of buzzword bingo? This covert game is being played at company town halls and conferences nationwide as corporations across America increasingly use these ridiculous words and phrases. Employees craft bingo cards with the made-up maxims dujour and when the executives inevitably say all the words on their card in a row, column or diagonal line, instead of yelling “bingo,” employees surreptitiously raise their arms to look like they are stretching. Later, they win some sort of predetermined prize. Bear in mind that if your employees are laughing at you—so are reporters, clients and stakeholders. This can ultimately hurt your “bottom line.”
When I was a journalist at a business newspaper, much of our editorial meetings were spent trashing jargon-infested press releases as “Star Trek-eeze”—as in, “the dilithium crystals are breaching the warp core, Captain.” Obviously, these press releases did not garner the type of attention the company executives were seeking.
All kidding and buzzword bingo games aside, no reporter or would-be client should ever need a decoder ring to understand your marketing collateral. A few rules to live by when crafting content:
Read your materials out loud. Break up run on sentences into smaller ones, each containing one thought or idea.
Simplify your language. Do you “utilize” words like “utilize” when a simpler word like “use” will do?
Share your materials with people outside corporate America—like your spouse, if you are not announcing something that’s confidential. Do they understand what you are trying to say, what your product or service is or does and what makes it better than that of your competitors?
Find corporate jargon websites online via a Google search, then perform an edit, find and replace in your documents to remove any of the listed offending word choices.
Or, you can simply leave the content crafting to the professionals.