If you want to have genuine impact when you write or present, there are certain words you’d do well to avoid. They’ve lost all meaning and will only act to obscure your message and turn people off.
A stubborn myth persists in corporate life that if we don’t use the so-called ‘language of business’ then we are somehow unsophisticated or don’t know our job. All too often when we write or speak at work, we do so to impress, and not to be understood.
In fact, such is the desire to sound sophisticated many executives can no longer even articulate what they do. Instead of thinking hard about how they solve their clients’ problems, and what makes them stand apart from the pack, people will instead retreat into the safety of the banal. They’ll use the same stock-in-trade phrases – over and over – until they are so worn with overuse that all hope of meaning is lost.
And yet we have no problem communicating effectively with friends and family. Why is it – I often ask myself – that when I’m at home and my son asks me to fix his bike, I say, “Yes, son. I’ll fix your bike.” But then I get to work, put the nonsense hat on, and suddenly I’m no longer fixing a bike, “I’m offering an innovative bike-based solution that puts sustainability at its heart and aligns with my son’s core values.”
Conquest of meaning
None of what I have just written has any real meaning. It is a series of heinously over-used abstract concepts lined up against each other with the aim of producing a sentence that feels like it might tick a lot of boxes. Sound sophisticated, even. It doesn’t. At no point has the end reader – my son – been considered at all. He just wants me to fix his bike.
This way of speaking and writing sucks out all power and purpose from our messages. It obscures meaning and turns our writing into a kind of formless de-humanised word porridge, that slides across the brain like water over a worn pebble.
The language we use in business should connect directly to our audience in a concrete and tangible way. Our sentences should be short and our words simple and immediately understandable. Acronyms should be used sparingly, and abstract concepts avoided (innovation is an abstract concept).
Here are just a few words to avoid. I call them vacuous banalities. If you want to win people over with your communications (written or oral) try to weed them out.
Leverage: Grossly overused, particularly in finance. The brain just filters it out. Does Lionel Messi leverage his skillset? Neither should you. Just score goals and leave the opposition in awe.
Significant: As in, ‘a significant stakeholder interaction’. The Japanese knotweed of words. Once planted in the language, impossible to weed out. If something is truly significant, you won’t need to tell me. ‘The client was furious.’
Innovative: name a company that does NOT describe itself as innovative. And if we’re all innovative, nobody is innovative. See also: dynamic, sustainable, customer-centric, insightful, returns-driven etc. Show don’t tell.
Global: My local sandwich shop describes itself as global (Global Baguettes). We are all global now. Instead, show how an international network helps to solve the client’s problem.
Solutions: Offering to solve my specific problem is a concrete and clear way of hammering a message home. Offering ‘solutions’ is an abstract concept that has no meaning to me whatsoever. “We aim to protect your capital against inflation,” is clear and concrete. “Redefining the financial services value-chain,” is meaningless waffle.
I leave you with a poem I’ve butchered to demonstrate my point. Simple language has power and impact. So-called sophisticated language and corporate buzz words kill all meaning (and beauty).
(WITH APOLOGIES TO RUDYARD KIPLING)
If you can align your core values when all about you
are losing theirs and circling back to you.
If you can take a deep dive when all stakeholders doubt you
But make allowance for significant headwinds too;
If you can leverage, and not be tired of leveraging
Or delivering deliverables, don’t not deliver deliverables
If you can integrate customer-centric solutions but remain outcomes-focussed.
If you can decision when all decisioning is done
If you can fill the unforgiving weekly update
with sixty minutes’ worth of innovative solutions
yours is the corporate ecosystem and everything that’s in it,
And, which is more, you’ll be a disruptor my son.