Thursday, September 18, 2008

English Language: Choose Your Words Wisely


I met with a client today and he had several questions about writing email. He asked if it was correct to write "as follows" or "see below" before introducing a list of ideas his department came up with. I said that sure, you could use either of those phrases, but why would you want to? Why not just write: "Our department came up with these ideas:" and then write the list?

For some reason corporate language is getting more and more convoluted. We've lost track of what words actually mean and instead copy what we see everyone else writing.

Why do we write, "Please find attached?" I don't know about you, but my attachment isn't hiding. How about, "Please revert back..." Back to what? I like myself just the way I am, thank you very much.

According to the Plain English Campaign in the UK, a survey revealed that "many staff who work for big corporate organisations find themselves using management speak as a way of disguising the fact that they haven't done their job properly. Some people think that it is easy to bluff their way through by using long, impressive-sounding words and phrases, even if they don't know what they mean." Great idea! If you don't know what you're talking about, you can find some great big words to use here.

Shirley Taylor, Business Writing Guru, explains that people tend to use simple cliches in their writing that are old-fashioned and overworked. See her list: "A-Z of Bloopers and Blunders, Common Errors and Clich├ęs" for great examples of management speak in action. I'm willing to bet that you use most of these phrases in business email every day.

It's time to speak and write clearly. Yes, I can agree with another one of my clients who says that "sometimes it's necessary to use more words to soften the message." But at the same time we need to be sure that all of those words make sense.

We need to start somewhere. The most common excuse I hear for writing overly-inflated flowery prose in business situations is "That's just how we write here." Says who exactly? I've never once heard the reasoning, "Because I feel that my style is the most effective way to communicate." If we keep doing what we've always done we're going to keep having to waste time clarifying emails with vague words and phrases like "deliverables," "core competencies" and "performance management."

Not to mention all the antiquated phrases like "as per your request" and "enclosed herewith." If you wouldn't say it, why would you write it?

I make it my goal to write as clearly and simply as possible so my message can reach as many minds as possible without a bunch of question marks blocking the way. I hope you'll join me in this effort.

What are the worst words and phrases you come across at work? I'd love to hear your comments!

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