Image shutterstock 121137493 300x300 Source Dallas Web Design Company | PR | SEO and …“We the human capital of the United States, in order to facilitate a cutting-edge, best-of-breed convergence of revenue-generating entities, actualize Justice, insure scalable domestic Tranquility, provide for the interdependent interfacing of defensive capabilities, promote mutually beneficial functionality in the North American market space, and secure the Blessings of harmonized, re-engineered culture to ourselves and our Posterity, do conceptualize and cultivate this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Let us bow our heads and give thanks that Gouverneur Morris, the Founding Father credited with writing the preamble to the United States Constitution, was a far better writer than many of today’s marketers. Otherwise, millions upon millions of children would never have been able to memorize the preamble in grade school – much less understand it – and the Union might never had held together.
A Confession and a Theory
I have a confession: Vague language drives me bonkers. And ever since I made the jump to Internet marketing firms after a long career in newspapers, I have puzzled on this question: Why is so much business writing mind-numbingly obtuse? I developed an armchair theory. Vague language is high art in business because a negotiation is a courtship of adversaries, and ambiguity is necessary to avoid driving off the other party before you have time to draw him in. We marketers have simply gotten lazy and adopted it.
It turns out my pop psychology on business speak was hardly groundbreaking. Actual academic researchers were way ahead of me. Their studies have found ambiguity used for all kinds of valid reasons: as a means of self-protection, to minimize risks, to avoid offending the other party, to extend negotiations, and sometimes to gain advantage by withholding critical information. As philosophy student Xiaohua Zhao wrote in his 2010 doctoral thesis on Chinese business negotiations, vague language “can function as a weapon, a lubricant and a disguise.” It can be used “to describe, to suggest, to complain, to praise, to refuse, to cover, to concede, to inquire,” all with minimal risk of offending.
Ambiguity Undercuts Our Success
So I admit it. Vague language has a necessary place in business. But here’s the thing: Not only is it unnecessary in marketing, it undercuts our success. We in technology public relations have suffered for our proximity to endless gobbledygook. We spend so much time listening to business speak that we start to incorporate it in our own work, like chameleons just trying to fit in.
The thing to remember is that our goals differ from the folks negotiating deals. We seek to resonate and engage, for people to read what we write and pass it along to friends on Facebook. Our goal is clarity over obfuscation. We are translators of the difficult and complicated. We write to communicate specific messages to real human beings. Do real human beings talk like this?
“Doctors believe that the pharmaceutical industry could play an important role in helping value-based healthcare providers such as accountable care organizations (ACOs) to deliver better care at lower cost. But pharma companies currently do a poor job of delivering the kind of data needed to accomplish that goal. The insight comes from a new survey of physicians in value-based delivery models …” blah, blah, blah. [Excerpted from an actual press release I just plucked off Business Wire.]
Of course they don’t. And I’ll tell you something else: Real human beings don’t read it, either. Neither will the reporters you so desperately want to notice your story. My experience also tells me modern readers have become far too savvy to be drawn in by empty jargon about market space, deliverables, value-added, business spend, best practices or any of the endless -izations. They don’t buy it for a moment. They simply move on.
A Call to Action: Resist!
So let this be the day you ditch vague language in your work, even if you still must use it in the boardroom. Choose active over passive voice. Write short sentences. Employ vivid imagery. Ditch the acronyms. Avoid the gerunds. Steer clear of long, boring quotes. Pity the poor reader. When you’re writing, try to imagine his eyes breezing through your work like a hot knife through butter.
You can do it. Resist the contagion of vague language!
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