Your mother was right about bad words

Someone told me about a company that was reputed to be impressive, and I went to the firm’s website to learn more. I spent about ten minutes reviewing their content.

What does this amazing company do? No clue. I read their mission, product information, press releases, “About Us,” and more – and I can’t begin to tell you just what it is they sell or why I should buy any. I can’t even make an educated guess. The copy is full of buzzwords and odd phrases that made sense to their marketing director, but were lost on someone who might be a prospect.

Their industry? Business-to-business marketing.

Your mother told you not to use bad words, and I’m here to echo her advice. But when I talk about “bad” words, I’m not referring to the four-letter expletives that earned you a mouthful of soap. I’m talking about the strange language of today’s corporate world. Language that’s so arcane and changes so often that it’s frequently incomprehensible. Language that’s misused by one corporate visionary and mimicked by hundreds of others within minutes.

Bad words are so prevalent that I assumed there must be a common source, and I think I’ve found it in the residual effects of trying to impress college professors. Yeah, you did it, too. Never mind that your Intro to PoliSci prof dedicated his life and dissertation to some minute aspect of Rosseau’s writings. Never mind that he has actually knelt and wept before the man’s grave. You’re going to mask your complete ignorance (and failure to read the assignment) by throwing a few five-syllable words and some phrase-book French into that term paper.

In today’s information-overloaded world, the best way to break through is with clear, accurate communication – and a good start is to stop making common misuses of words. So everyone else does it? Did that excuse work with your mother?

Utilize use. It’s easy to understand why people dislike “use.” Heck, it only has three unimpressive letters. Has some negative connotations, too – you don’t want anyone to “use” you. “Utilize” sounds far more impressive, doesn’t it? But the two words have somewhat different meanings. “Utilize” is at its most correct when it describes something serving the customary function of something else. Use a hammer to pound nails, but utilize a screwdriver to do the same thing when the hammer isn’t handy.

Left wanting. “Want” is another word that’s just too folksy for many folks. So instead they endeavor or desire. While those words may be technically correct, they’re not as precise. In fact, saying “desire” creates images of pounding hearts and lust, not industrial procurement – and trying to become even more impressive by using variants like “desirous” is just laughable.

At nauseam. A handy preposition, “at” becomes an odd-sounding crutch in brochures and websites: “At Acme Widgets, we’re dedicated to quality and committed to service.” Wouldn’t it be more communicative to say “Acme Widgets is dedicated to quality and committed to service” or the even-friendlier “we’re dedicated to quality and committed to service”? Your logo is nearby, so people know they’re reading about you and not your competitor. Save “at” for specifying locations and times.

It’s appropriate. Yes, there are times when “appropriate” is apt, but it’s all too often an inappropriate appendage. “Once we review the information, we’ll take appropriate action” is no stronger than “once we review the information, we’ll take action.” Unless there’s a burning need to distinguish your course of action from an inappropriate one, don’t use it.

Hardly unique. Since this powerful word means “sole” or “one of a kind,” why do we see so much literature describing products as “very unique” or “most unique?” Hedging, that’s why. If your product or service is indeed unique, don’t hesitate to use the word. If you must soften it to mollify the company’s lawyers, utilize another word.

Poor quality. Serious writers have been losing this battle for years, but you shouldn’t contribute to a great word’s degradation. Quality is a noun that represents the essential character of something or the degree of its excellence. It isn’t an adjective meaning “very good.” You can say that a Rolls-Royce displays a distinctive quality of workmanship, but you shouldn’t refer to it as a “quality motorcar.” Your widget may have high quality, but that doesn’t make it a “quality product.”

Stop verbing. A similar problem appears in the utilization of perfectly good nouns as horrible verbs. “She and I will conference on Thursday.” Why pass up the perfectly good “confer” or “talk?” Ditto for “interface.”

Fashionably flawed. Some words spread as quickly as an email-borne virus and are equally tough to eradicate. Just because your competitors are “partnering” with their suppliers doesn’t mean you can’t work with yours. Facilitate your customers’ understanding of your marketing materials by replacing words like “facilitate” with their simpler, less flashy cousins. Save “robust” for strong coffee, not software. And leave “world-class” to Olympic gymnasts.

After all, sending a memo that reads “the brewed beverage receptacle continues to demonstrate a skew indicative of nonpossession of the essential contents” isn’t going to impress anyone you really need to impress. Won’t shame them into making more coffee, either.