Good business writing should be clear, convincing, and credible, right? To connect with audiences best, to communicate messages powerfully, writing needs to avoid hollow clichés and empty buzzwords. Among business communicators, these concepts are widely regarded as truth. But recently, I was invited to question these assumptions.
I was giving a talk to a group of small-business owners called “Sharpen Your Business Writing Skills,” and two participants admitted their proposals are often filled with jargon like “innovative solutions” and “cross-platform capabilities.” They said wrote with these convoluted phrases for a couple reasons. One, they didn’t always know what else to say. But also clients sometimes seemed impressed by this type of language. It made them think that they were getting some sort of uncommon expertise. So should these business owners stop writing this way if it seemed to help them win contracts?
Jargon Has a Purpose
Before I answer the question, I’d like to point out that jargon often has a purpose. New terms are developed and used by people within an industry in order to discuss specialized concepts. So terms like “cross-platform capabilities” and “search engine optimization” might seem impenetrable to non-tech people, but that’s not to say they aren’t useful ideas to those who know what they mean. Perhaps less nobly, jargon is also used sometimes as a barrier of exclusivity. Those who know the terms use them to identify who’s in the know and connected and keep out those who are not.
On the other hand, phrases that often show up in corporate-speak like “leading provider” and “combined years of experience” are ultimately meaningless. I recommend avoiding them because they don’t hold up under scrutiny, which means they can damage credibility. But beyond any issues of credibility, they’re also wasted space. Why fill a page with meaningless phrases when it could be filled with concepts that connect? The question is rhetorical, but I guess there’s one answer that goes back to the original question: well-chosen meaningless phrases can sometimes impress people.
Impressed by Emptiness
People indeed do get distracted by hollow words and weak claims. Consumer advertising relies on such techniques all the time. For example, an outdoor clothing company might boast a new jacket is made out of “Technikore” fabric. A nutritional supplement claims that it contains “staminol.” What do these terms mean? Is Technikore any better than nylon? Will staminol make me run longer? Consumers may not really know, but these words sure sounds impressive.
This technique is so common that it must be effective in certain corners. Still, I think the editors of Consumer Reports—and educated consumers in general—know to overlook such terms or at least regard them with suspicion. And for the audience of educated consumers (who are in general wealthier and better educated in general), the effect can sometimes be counter-productive because puffed-up claims can serve to diminish credibility.
For the business world, the same situation applies. A client, especially one who’s distracted, time-pressed, or unknowledgeable about a specified area might be drawn in by big-sounding buzzwords. Nevertheless, this audience tends to be smart and value conscious. When lots of money is at stake, they will be suspicious of empty claims.
When to Use Buzzwords
If your industry's jargon means something substantive, by all means use the terms. (Keep in mind it can be helpful to define them for your audience.) But if a company is writing technobabble or convoluted buzzwords out of a need to obscure the worth of its services, then maybe that company needs to re-examine its business and figure out where its value proposition really is.
Well-chosen meaningless phrases might impress people and win proposals, but I believe that well-chosen meaningful phrases will impress people even more and win even more proposals.
Concrete, credible, and original messages are often difficult to come up with, but they connect better than clichés, which is why they have worth.
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