The people (you know it was a committee) who dreamed up “morale booster” probably had their employees’ best interests at heart. Yet it’s come to connote “too little, too late,” “PR opportunity for management,” and a whole lot of other negatives.
Other good terms gone bad include:
Creating synergy. One of a “grab-bag of phrases that fill in for actual ideas, goals or know-how,” says reader Alba Brunetti.
Work with me. “Lower your rates to fit my wee budget.” (Jenna Schnuer)
Operational excellence. “Layoffs and massive budget-cutting” (Sarah Maxim). Used to be called streamlining or rightsizing.
Teachable moment. “You fucked up.” (Sophia Dembling)
Please add to the list!
I think we’ve established that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, bitch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. To quote a Facebook group I was recently invited to join, “I judge you when you confuse their and they’re.”
But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable. One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The associates’ newsletter, written by associates for associates, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT employees under the age of 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “Imma reserve the conf room for the 3 pm.”
There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that “Imma” would look ridiculous to most people over the age of 35. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” with terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, resulted in the writer getting fired when it was forwarded to the CEO.
Which brings up another point: assume your message will get forwarded. And be ready to explain yourself when it does.
I’ve always loved the word “mellifluous.” It’s a lovely example of onomatopoeia—words that suggest or imitate the thing they are describing. On the other hand, I physically itch when someone says “chafe.” It’s far more irritating than, say, “irritating.”
Since our goal is to influence our readers, corporate writers need to be especially sensitive to word choice. I recently saw a job search letter in which the applicant described her work as “superior.” The word gave me a mental image of the woman looking down her nose at her colleagues. The same applicant wrote that she had a “chronic” interest in magazine writing. She would have been better off with “continuing” (although the urge to write does sometimes feel like a disease).
There’s something offensive about the idea of “eating Chinese” or “eating Indian.” We’re talking about food here, right? Let’s use that extra word to clarify what we’re eating.
Similarly, referring to groups of people as “the blind,” “the deaf” or “the disabled” literally defines them by their limitations. Assuming their disabilities are relevant to the conversation, it’s just as easy to say “blind children” or “people with disabilities.” This is known as people-first language; it emphasizes the person instead of the disability. Seems like common sense to me.
Few grammatical errors cause more unintended hilarity than misplaced modifiers. A few examples:
The speaker recalled his revelation in the elevator.
We saw several iguanas at the conference in San Juan.
The CEO offered him a job at the strip club.
Used correctly, modifiers add detail and color to your writing. Just don’t spread them around—keep them close to the thing they are modifying.
I recently stumbled across the following paragraph (edited to protect the guilty) on a corporate website. It’s 40 words; can you rewrite it to 20 or less?
“We firmly believe that transparency and ongoing partnerships are key drivers toward finding long-term, sustainable solutions to global challenges. To this end, we maintain relationships with key stakeholders including government officials, politicians, regulatory authorities, international organizations and nongovernmental organizations.”
In the past 24 hours, I’ve received press releases announcing a book about preschools, a new product for geocachers, and an invitation to interview “the only expert who knows the true cause of the financial crisis.” The most amazing part is that someone is being paid to send this “news” directly to my junk file.
I know it’s difficult to keep press lists up to date. And it’s true that I used to be a journalist. But my last significant job in that area ended ten years ago, well before my current email address even existed.
So authors, experts, and communications professionals of all stripes: Before you buy a mailing list or hire someone to distribute your exciting news, ask yourself who really cares. Then do the research to find members of the National Geocaching Association or people who write about families. Even if you reach 20 people instead of 2,000, your success rate will skyrocket.
I’ve started collecting these. Would love to hear yours.
- Expert. Someone from out of town.
- Guru (also rockstar, ninja, wizard). Advisor with no real credentials.
- Convergence. We posted the article on Facebook and linked the Facebook page to Twitter.
- Crowdsourced. Vetted by our friends, and maybe the people we ride the train with.
- Human business. Two-year-olds do this on the potty.
Direct quotes can create an instant, personal connection between your company and its target audience. But a corporate-speak sound bite will have the opposite effect. Compare the following quotes, both on the subject of pro bono:
“It gives me pleasure to report that 85 percent of the firm’s attorneys engage in work on a pro bono basis, primarily with distressed populations in the metropolitan area.”
“I’m proud to say that nearly all our lawyers volunteer in the community.”
Which makes you feel more positive about the firm? How can you reduce the jargon in your company’s direct quotes?
I’ve written my share of mission statements. I’ve lauded the “commitment to diversity” at companies where less than ten percent of the managers were diverse (one had a gay, Puerto Rican, female director and counted her three times), and talked up “ongoing initiatives” with no budget, staffing or deliverables. With this in mind, here are my nominees for the emptiest, most irritating phrases in current use.
- Creating an environment of…. Visions of terraria and zoo enclosures come to mind.
- Corporate values/goals. These terms are interchangeable and cancel each other out. For instance, “Our corporate values of inclusion and mutual respect will achieve our corporate goal of $50 million in profits this year—or you’re all fired.”
- The next level. We are afraid to put a number on this because we think it’s going to fail.
- Leverage our strengths. What’s wrong with, “Do more with what we’ve got?”
- Bring it back full circle. Start over without admitting we screwed up.