“I have a dream today.”
Martin Luther King Jr. repeated those dramatic words in his pivotal speech about civil rights. People remembered it. And responded. But the speech wouldn’t have had the same impact if King had repeated, “There are some things that I think we need to work on to improve this country with regard to racial issues.”
People don’t respond to bland words. Improving your word choice will make your documents clearer and more effective. Four easy steps:
1. Eliminate bland words
Use strong words to punch up a sentence:
This proposal is very important to our company’s success.
This proposal is crucial (or vital) to our company’s success.
The controller looked into the discrepancy between the two financial reports.
The controller investigated the discrepancy between the two financial reports.
A thesaurus can pull you out of a rut. Just make sure the new word is an improvement, not change for the sake of change. Reading business magazines and other documents written with a smooth, intelligent style will also improve your word choice.
2. Be specific
Specific words create specific images that keep readers interested.
Look at the following memo:
The D.B. Company, which in the past has purchased many shipments of our products, had not paid on its invoices for a long time. As a result, I ordered that all remaining orders to the company be cancelled as of July 1. However, an executive from the company called to complain about the cancellation, offering an excuse about the unpaid invoices. She also said that a glitch in our software had caused an error in the date of one invoice. Because D.B. has been a good customer, we worked out a new agreement with the company. We also hired someone to debug our invoice computer.
The memo is free from grammar errors. It’s not wordy. It’s just dull. Specific details would liven up the memo and make the writer look more capable:
The D.B. Company, which has purchased 100 shipments of our hammers and nails in the past two years, had not paid on its invoices for four months. As a result, I ordered that all remaining orders to the company be cancelled as of July 1. However, Susan McGraw, D.B.’s vice president, called to complain about the cancellation. She said one of the invoices had not been paid on time because of a seasonal cash flow problem that has since been overcome. In addition, she said that a glitch in our software had caused an error in the date of another invoice, making it seem as though the invoice was already 30 days old before D.B. even received it. Because D.B. has been a good customer, we worked out a new agreement that would allow the company a 90-day payment window in the spring, when D.B. ships out most of its products and is waiting for customer payments. We also hired a computer specialist from CompFinancial to debug our invoice computer.
3. Eliminate jargon
Jargon is tricky. Using specialized terms from your field can be helpful or harmful. If you’re sending a memo to coworkers, it will save time to use vocabulary they understand, especially if using one jargon word will save you from writing four other words.
But jargon leads to confusion in external documents because people outside a certain field don’t understand it. For example, a person not familiar with hockey might think a hat trick is something a magician does. In a hospital, an MI sounds harmless enough, but it’s doctor jargon for a heart attack. In a courthouse, a prosecutor might say he is going to nol-pros a case. That’s abbreviated jargon for nolle prosequi, which is law jargon meaning “we shall no longer prosecute.” For those of us who get our law education from TV dramas, it means the case was dismissed.
A survey of more than 1,500 people in 2003 discovered that one-third of PC owners did not know the meaning of megahertz even though most computer ads and product information sheets studied during the same time period used the word as if everyone understood it.
Because different sectors of the business world have their own jargon, it’s hard to provide a comprehensive guide on this blog. The bottom line is this: If you’re writing something that will go to customers, the media, or any outside organization or agency, use common words even if it means adding a word or two.
Your goal for any document is to be understood by its audience, even the guy who doesn’t know the meaning of megahertz.
4. Avoid Businessese
Jargon sometimes goes hand in hand with “businessese,” wordy, pretentious writing that is geared more toward making the writer sound smart than toward conveying a clear message. For example, the first sentences in the following examples use terms that sound important but are actually just wordy:
Company executives will conduct a site visit to our department Tuesday.
Company executives will visit (or tour) our department Tuesday.
High production costs can be a causal factor in worker layoffs.
High production costs can cause layoffs.
Sometimes it’s not a matter of adding extra words. Sometimes writers try to use the most elaborate word for any given situation. Here are some examples and their simpler counterparts:
Reside > live
Inform > tell
Request > ask
Initial > first
Initiate > start, begin
Subsequent to > after
Modify > change
Assist > help
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to exercise your verbal skills, so don’t abolish the terms on the list. Using one here and there won’t hurt your writing, but a document stuffed with businessese will sound dull.
Next time: Alphabet soup