Many of us fall into the trap of using corporate jargon at work. (If you’d like to know why, check out Why we use business buzzwords – and what to do about it).
Unfortunately, there’s lots of evidence to show it’s bad for business. For example, 88% of B2B decision makers feel that marketing clichés such as ‘bleeding-edge’ and ‘world class’ damage a company’s credibility.
There’s also lots of evidence to show why cutting it out is good for business. Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer found that the financial services sector was one of the three least trusted industry sectors. The most popular answer to what could be done to make the sector more trusted was to make the terms and conditions easier to read.
Then of course there’s the simple irritation factor. We’ve all seen the lists of the Top Ten Most Hated Office Phrases or considered playing buzzword bingo in a meeting.
So if you’re keen to cut out the corporate waffle, here are my top tips for writing like a human.
Talk to your reader
When you’re writing, imagine that the person is sitting across the table from you and you’re speaking directly to them. Your writing will be much more human and much more approachable automatically.
If you’re writing a letter to an individual, picture that particular individual (if you don’t know them, imagine what they might be like). If you’re writing a document that will be read by lots of people, picture an individual who’s representative of the entire audience. For example, if you’re writing an article for an HR magazine, your reader might be a woman in her 40s who’s been in HR for 15 years.
Also imagine what kind of mood they will be in when they read what you’ve written. Then think about how you want them to feel when they’ve finished reading it. For example, if you’re writing a letter of apology your reader might start by feeling angry and you want them to feel calm at the end. If you’re writing a document to persuade more people to car share to work, they might be sceptical at the start but you want them to be enthusiastic supporters at the end.
Have a plan
Before you start writing, think about the information you need to convey. Again, keep your reader in mind. Make sure you include all the information they’ll need to understand what you’re saying. Make sure you cut out anything that you want to say but isn’t useful or relevant to your reader.
For example, if you’re emailing colleagues to tell them the venue for a meeting, you just need to tell them the meeting venue. You don’t need to tell them about all the other venues you considered before making your selection.
By cutting out the waffle you’ll be instantly clearer and easier to understand.
Prove what you’re saying
It’s very easy to slip into cliché when you’re writing marketing copy. ‘This machine is the fastest on the market.’ ‘We are an innovative company.’ ‘We offer high quality customer service.’
As we saw in the introduction, phrases like this damage your credibility. Plus, everyone says things like this and there’s no way to tell you apart from your competitors or give people a reason to choose you.
Unpack what you mean and use examples to prove what you’re saying. ‘This machine produces five times more widgets every hour than its nearest rival.’ ‘We are the only company in our industry to offer pay-as-you-go pricing, so you only pay for what you use.’ ‘Our call centre is open 24/7 and your call will be answered by a human being not a machine asking you to press one for sales, two for service…’.
Say what you really mean
Are you saying something in a particular way because it’s the easiest way to get the information across? Or because you think it sounds smarter or fancier?
Always opt for the easiest way to say something. So don’t say: ‘Cascade this information to your team.’ Instead say: ‘Tell your team about this.’ Don’t say: ‘There were some important learnings to take away.’ Instead say: ‘We learned some important things.’
Or simply ask yourself: does this phrasing annoy me? If it does, rephrase it.
Keep your sentences short
Longer sentences are harder to understand. Keep your sentences to 15-20 words long wherever you can. One idea per sentence is a good starting point. Use bulleted lists where appropriate.
When you read back what you’ve written, ask if there are any sentences you needed to read twice to check they made sense. If there are, rephrase them.
Respect your reader
Writing clearly and concisely and sounding like a human being takes effort. But your readers will thank you for conveying information clearly and concisely. So they’re more likely to be receptive to your message. And if you’re going to go to the trouble of writing something, isn’t that what you want?
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