Why the Language of Business Needs an Update

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We all know popular culture has a love affair with certain words and phrases. How many times do you hear a person, a product or an event described as “amazing?” I want to throw something at the TV every time I hear that word. Although, I suppose, that may say more about my choices in programming than it does about linguistic fads. I admit: I have a thing for “fashion police.”

Now let’s look at business. Have you ever taken a moment to peruse the summary paragraphs on LinkedIn? You’ll find a mind-numbing repetition of business speak: optimize, facilitate, thought leadership, innovation, transformational, sustainable, life-cycle management and the all-time over-used “solutions provider.”

We had a client once who was such a prolific abuser of business-speak, we used to make up terms to see if she’d catch on. Things like “rotation sequencing,” and “dynamic vocal mapping.” Who knew if those terms actually existed? What we did know is that she’d never say, “Can you tell me what that means?” Sure enough, she’d be using our bogus terminology the next time we saw her, and even putting her own spin on it!

It was fun to watch the expressions on her colleagues’ faces. There would be the perplexed “huh?” followed by the eye roll from those who were on to her, or the wide-eyed “I don’t have a clue what she’s talking about, but I’d better act like I do.” This from more junior members of “the team.”

I often find myself wondering: Isn’t everybody tired of the jargoning? How refreshing it would be to read business communication minus the business-speak. The more sophisticated marketers are catching on; their websites are copy light and written in common parlance. Ask anyone who’s ever struggled with a content-heavy site; they bail after four seconds! I’d like to suggest that we all take a page from George Orwell.

Here are his six elementary rules:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech that you are not used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active voice.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Brooke Lighton is a principal at Connascent, Inc., a branding and sales consulting firm based in Chicago. Brooke is a native New Yorker who started her career as a science writer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She segued into advertising, working first as a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather and later as a Group CD at Foote Cone & Belding. In 1988, Brooke launched her own agency, Lighton Colman. Today, she is a principal and heads creative services for Connascent, a branding and sales consulting firm. You can see their work at www.connascent.com.

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