Thursday, May 24, 2012

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!*

Every once in awhile, I’ll meet someone, have a pleasant conversation with them, and feel like I’ve gained a sense of their personality. And then I’ll get an email from them.

The email sounds stilted, obtuse, cold, and like it was written by their corporate lawyer or the Jubjub bird. It is totally unlike the person I met!


One of the most ferocious and persistent battles writers face when working with or in corporations is the war against gobbledygook, weasel words, and corporate speak.

And as in uffish thought he stood!

Have you ever read a document that contained phrases such as these?
  • benchmark world-class deliverables
  • unleash global web-readiness
  • syndicate world-class vortals
  • scale mission-critical markets
  • innovate user-centric systems
  • deploy holistic ROI
Do you have any idea what’s actually meant?

Be honest! You may think you do but I challenge you to rewrite each of the above into a simple, clear, coherent sentence.

Yeah, I didn’t think you could.

Common buzzwords bandied about in corporate writing include such gems as leverage, process, interactive, solutions, empowerment, ownership, strategic, assessment, competency, team, customer satisfaction, validate, support, asset, environment, parameter, maximize, focus, system, paradigm, and so many more.

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Business people who are clueless about how to write well will generously pepper their emails, memos, reports, and presentations with these and other buzzwords. They string them together to create awesome sounding yet totally meaningless documents.

They breathlessly write such awfulness as “at the end of the day empowerment strategies must be globally deployed across silos to flatten and realign assessment paradigms that will yield world class solutions outside the box while increasing downside revenues during an off economy in the short term in order to add shareholder and stakeholder value….”

Sounds impressive yet it’s totally meaningless. And I loathe the phrase “at the end of the day.”

Ah, the sublime poetry of C-suite writers. We don’t know what they’re saying but they sure know how to use those big, impressive words!

Ambiguity! Obfuscation! Opacity! Boredom! Death!

No one talks like this. If you happen to meet someone who does, slap them silly with a copy of Strunk and White. You do have one, don’t you?

In his book The Dilbert Principle, Scott Adams warps the simple phrase, "I used my fork to eat a potato,” into the buzzworded disaster, "I utilized a multitined tool to process a starch resource."

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

The next time you’re tempted to employ beclouding verbosity, stop! Heed these simple tips to unbusy your business writing to create content that will tantalize and enlighten your readers:
  1. Use conversational English. Write the way you and your colleagues talk. Keep your writing simple, direct, and accessible.
  2. Use short sentences and compact paragraphs. Vary the length of your sentences. Break up big paragraphs. Make it easy for your reader to read.
  3. Use simple words.  Change words such as “utilize” to “use,” “paradigm” to “model,” “example,” or “set of values.”
  4. Use bullets. When you are making two or more points under a main thought, make them bullets. If the points indicate a sequence, use a number list.
  5. Use common sense. Write the way you wish others would write when you’re reading another completely indecipherable corporate memo.
When authoring corporate compositions and declarations, employing linguistic devices that deconstruct elaborate phrasal permutations will yield outputs from which obsfuscatory verbosity has been annihilated resulting in more elucidating treatises and memorandums.

Translation: Writing with clarity is a good thing.

Do you have examples of really bad corporate writing? Stories of dealing with executives who don’t get it? Perhaps experiences with corporate lawyers who insist on dense writing? Or your own tips for better business writing?

Sound off! I’d love to read your comments, stories, and examples.  

And if you really must use bad business writing, here are some fun tools to assist you:



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