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How to Beat the Bull: Eliminating Jargon from Your Writing

May 7, 2010

Much of today’s business communication is overloaded with jargon and corporate buzzwords.  Dilbert author Scott Adams has made millions by poking fun at the language used in the business world, and shows like The Office have become favorites for parodying workplace dialogue.

But when poor business communication starts costing you sales, it is no laughing matter.

Does Your Business Writing Stink?

Jargon spoils business writing as much as it does verbal communication. Products like BullFighter Software were developed to help people identify excessive jargon and “eliminate the bull” from their writing. But just as with spell-checkers, software only catches so much. It’s important to take a closer look at your writing and check for any jargon “droppings” left by the bull.

Here’s some of the B.S. (business-speak) that you should watch out for in your writing:

  • Many of the business words ending in -ize, such as incentivize, proceduralize, and genericize. General consensus is that these made-up words make you sound both pretentious and silly.
  • Commonly overused words and phrases such as synergy, leverage, actionable, and paradigm shift. These terms have been used so often, people tend to tune them out and miss the rest of your message.
  • Clichés and worn-out metaphors like thinking outside the box, at the end of the day, and pick the low-hanging fruit. Don’t be a lazy writer. Think of a fresh way to talk about your ideas, and try to avoid clichés that don’t communicate your unique perspective.

The goal of your writing should be to connect with your readers and effectively communicate your ideas. If the language you use makes your readers feel like you’re reading from a generic business script, you will fail to connect with them and your ideas will go unnoticed.

Use Language Your Readers Can Understand

The most important thing to consider in your business writing is not whether it makes sense to you, or even whether your co-worker down the hall understands your message. The most important thing is that you are communicating effectively with your target audience. Don’t assume your customers understand all of the acronyms or terms you and your colleagues use.

We were recently hired by a nonprofit organization to help with this very issue. One of the organization’s work units was increasing its interaction with consumers. The unit was comprised mostly of advanced-degree professionals who had been immersed in their own organizational culture for quite some time. Now that they needed communicate their work with an external audience, they were finding that the connection with consumers was not being made.  Opportunities were being lost.

We were able to help them evaluate their messages, solicit feedback from consumers, and decide how to communicate with their target audience to get desired results. Our value at the table was as much for our outside perspective as it was for our writing skills.

Business Writing that Hits the Bull’s-Eye

Whether or not you bring in a writing consultant, here are some important guidelines you can start using today to better connect with your readers:

1.  Write with the reader in mind.

No one wants to hang out with people who only talk about themselves. Similarly, people will tire of business writing with this same defect. Don’t ramble on and on about your company and its products or services. Show some interest in your audience. What’s in it for them? Why should they want to hear what you have to say? Make sure you are communicating the value of your message from the reader’s perspective.

2.  Anticipate your clients’ questions and deliver answers before they can ask.

Think about the kind of questions clients have asked in the past. What parts of your message are they least likely to understand? What additional information could you offer for certain aspects of your products or services?  Once you’ve identified common themes and questions your clients have, incorporate the answers into company literature, website content, or other business correspondence. Clients will feel you are in tune with their needs and be more apt to see you as the answer to their problem.

3.  Use stories and analogies to explain complex topics.

Have you ever looked in the dictionary for a word you didn’t know, only to have to look up another word to understand the definition? Don’t attempt to explain complicated topics with complicated words. Your clients should not have to go on a dictionary word hunt to understand your business writing.

For companies with high-tech products or specialized services the average person may not understand, finding a down-to-earth sales pitch can make all the difference in the success of your marketing campaign. Use everyday language instead of obscure “conceptual” words. Ask clients for real-life examples of how your product has impacted their business. Readers will remember a story about your product or service much more than a bland technical description of what you do.

4.  Test the message on someone who is unfamiliar with the subject matter.

This is the approach our client took—bringing in a writing consultant to help craft their core messages. An outside perspective can be extremely valuable for making sure you are communicating effectively with an external audience.

You can also solicit one or more of your clients for feedback during content development. Not only will it help you formulate your message, but it’s an excellent way to secure a long-term client and show them you value their perspective. Just be sure to compensate them for their time—with discounted services, pre-release products, or maybe tickets to a ballgame.

Improve Your Business Communication

The experts agree—good writing isn’t complicated or filled with obscure vocabulary. It’s clear, concise, and simple. We hope the tips we’ve included here will help you communicate more effectively with your clients and other targeted readers. To find out how else we can help you improve your business communication, contact us today.

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