Business Writing With Buzz
Front-end strategies for leveraged solutions in your business communiqués. (Or: learn to cut the cr_p and say what you mean.)
Anyone who missed the recent election must have been hiding under the proverbial rock, or willfully avoiding it altogether. If the latter is the case, we at Proof Communications sympathise because at no other point in the political calendar is the main purpose of communication – to impart information clearly – so casually abused, with the use of political double-talk, repetitive slogans (moving forward, anyone?) and ‘officialese’ at an apparent all time high. Or low, depending on your point of view.
You’ll know officialese when you hear it; it’s bureaucratic, hard to follow and mostly meaningless. Consider these examples from the excellent Bendable Learnings by Don Watson, author and speechwriter for former Prime Minister Paul Keating: ‘front-end strategies’, ‘leveraged solutions’, ‘the execution of deliverables’ and (our favourite) ‘synergy-related headcount reductions’, which was Nokia Siemens’ way of saying in a media release that they planned to fire a few people. It’s management-speak designed to hide either the horrible truth… or the fact that the speaker is utterly clueless about the subject. Which gives us an excellent insight into why pollies use it so much!
Officialese isn’t just a convenient tool for misinformation used by silver-tongued politicians. It’s also a disease that, if left unchecked, can spread rapidly and infect your business writing. Look at all your business communications – that’s everything from e-mail correspondence to reports and tenders – and ask yourself: is my meaning clear? Have I used industry jargon when talking to a customer who may not understand it? Am I using unnecessarily complex words when a simple, everyday alternative would work just as well?
We’ve talked about ways to make your business writing clearer in Proof Communications newsletters before but, unlike our Prime Minister’s favourite slogan, some things can bear repetition. Here’s a quick refresher on writing clearly and effectively:
1. What am I trying to say?
Identify the purpose of your communication or ‘key message’, as well as all the supporting information you need to convey.
2. Get yourself a gorgeous body.
Structure is crucial to clarity. As a rule of thumb, every paragraph should contain a unique point that contributes to your overall message.
3. Spell-check your work.
Your computer’s spell-check function doesn’t understand jargon, so it’s an excellent way of identifying industry-specific terms, as well as misspellings.
4. Honesty is the key.
Have you used ‘antediluvian’ instead of ‘old-fashioned’ because you think it makes you sound smarter? Not only do you risk alienating your customer, you might just run out of words. As CS Lewis said, “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Save the posh words for the cryptic crossword.
As the American Plain English Foundation says: “Though no one knows the total cost of poor communication, the information we do have suggests it's high. While writing in plain language isn't easy, it pays off in positive results”.
So stop the rot: inoculate yourself against the spread of officialese before it costs you a customer!
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I’ve talked before about the need to choose your words oh-so-carefully in business communications, and nowhere is that process more complex than in international sales and marketing. We’ve all heard the hilarious anecdotes about translation errors made when English-speaking marketers try to take their campaigns global – hilarious, that is, unless you’re the person responsible – and the beauty of these cautionary tales is that they’re often made by multinationals: household names that can afford solid product research and really have no excuses for making this kind of mistake.
Some of the more famous examples:
- Coca Cola’s first translation into Chinese was ‘ko-ko-ken-la’… or, in a particular Chinese dialect, ‘bite the wax tadpole’. Researchers found a better alternative amongst the 40,000 Chinese characters available to them in the closer phonetic rendering ‘ko-kou-ko-le’; fortuitously, this translates roughly to ‘happiness in the mouth’.
- Nor is their competition immune. Pepsi’s ‘Come alive with the Pepsi Generation’ campaign promised Taiwanese-speaking consumers that Pepsi would ‘bring your ancestors back from the dead’.
- Swedish furniture giant IKEA named a desk FARTFULL. Enough said.
- American Motors tried to project a strong, masculine, heroic image by naming its new car the ‘Matador’. For Puerto Rican consumers, this translated to ‘killer’, which was particularly unfortunate in view of the country’s badly maintained roads and high road toll.
Yes, it’s all fun and games when it’s someone else’s neck on the chopping block. But let’s put aside the comic blunders of the world’s multinationals for a moment because your job – using English to communicate with a largely English-speaking market – presents its own challenges. All too often, there is a big difference between ‘communicating’ and ‘making your meaning understood’.
The study of communication and meaning is called semiotics, which looks at how signs and symbols (including words) combine to convey messages. To cut a long story short, the way words work – or rather, how effectively they communicate your intended meaning – is largely dependent on context, including physical barriers like language, and cultural and psychological factors, such as the upbringing and values of the target. The beauty of the English language is that it is so delightfully nuanced but this brings with it an ugly truth: there’s no guarantee that everyone in your target group will take from your business communications the meaning you intended. Ask anyone who has ever issued a party invitation – a value-laden word like ‘casual’ used to describe your dress code means very different things in Maroochydore than in Melbourne!
So the rules for clear business communications are:
- Refine your message: work out exactly what it is you want to say before saying it
- Think about your target market: age, culture, level of education, language barriers etc
- Look at the word options (synonyms) available to you: we’ve talked about this before but, to paraphrase CS Lewis’s famous piece of writing advice, don’t use ‘infinitely’ when ‘very’ will do or you’ll have nothing left to use when you want to talk about something really infinite. And avoid value-laden words where possible because, simply put, not everybody shares your values
- Don’t forget context: the format of your message (press release, shareholder report, tender, invitation, email) and the environment you’re using them (social, political, cultural, etc).
So to conclude: don’t think you’re immune to translation problems just because you work only in English, or even just in one English-speaking market (‘fanny pack’, anyone?) because understanding relies on so much more than merely a shared dialect.
And here’s a piece of free advice, courtesy of Proof Communications: if you’re ever toasting colleagues in Japan over a friendly glass of sake, don’t say ‘cin cin’, the Italian for ‘cheers’. It means ‘small penis’ in Japanese. Offence might well be taken…
For help with your communications, contact Rosemary on 02 9314 7506 or 0411 123 216 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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