Forget Jargon and Clichés; Write and Speak in Plain English

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Has this ever happened to you? You are on the phone with a potential client. They ask a few warm-up questions to break the ice and get to know you better. The interview seems to be going well. Or so you think. Until the interviewer – a high-level marketing exec – begins to ask questions filled with marketing buzzwords you are not familiar with.

How would you respond? What would you say?

I was in a similar situation a few months ago. When the marketing exec I spoke with began using marketing jargon, I suddenly felt ill-at-ease. I felt excluded from the conversation. I’m not a marketing person. I’m a writer and editor who happens to occasionally write marketing copy. If someone starts talking about SEO strategy and marketing ROI, my eyes glaze over.

My job as a writer is to communicate as clearly as possible with readers. I can’t get held up by industry jargon and buzzwords that might mean something to the company but does not communicate clearly with their audience. To truly understand what this exec wanted me to write for her organization would have taken far more time and effort to ask loads of questions, and I suspected she did not have the patience to answer them. Naturally, I did not get the assignment with this client.

Browse any corporate report and leadership communications, and you’ll see they are filled with industry jargon and clichés that confuse readers and don’t present the organization in a positive light. Jargon is language specific to a business or industry often consisting of acronyms, abbreviations and specialty vocabulary that’s used as a shortcut to meaning among those who understand it. The other problem in business writing is clichés, those overused phrases that really have no meaning at all, such as “game changer,” “value add,” and “blue-sky thinking.” (For a good list of these clichés, check out this recent Forbes article and this one on PlainLanguage.gov.)

If you want to distinguish yourself and connect better with readers, then you need to speak and write what you mean in plain English. In other words, watch your language.

How can these problems be fixed? Here are a few tips from Business.com to help your business writing become crystal clear without relying on jargon and clichés.

1. Know your audience. What is their demographic? Their education level? Once you identify your audience, speak in their language, not your own. If your audience is a department of IT professionals, of course, your language will consist of IT buzzwords because they are more likely to understand them. But if your audience is made up of customers, you’ll want to speak as plainly as possible.

2. Don’t dress up your message. Naturally, you want to come across as sincere and knowledgeable, but don’t gloss over the message by using longer words and convoluted language. That will only muddy your message and create confusion. You don’t want to make your message sound more impressive than it really is. If you need to communicate to employees that several people were laid off, say: “Because of the company’s poor sales performance the past year, we had to fire several people from our sales and marketing staff.” End of story.

3. Use shorter words and sentences. Studies have shown that shorter speeches and messages are easier to remember over the long term.

4. Avoid using acronyms and abbreviations. According to PlainLanguage.gov, abbreviations are often published in an inconsistent format. For example, IBM vs. I.B.M. Sometimes, abbreviations appear only once in a document so it makes no sense to include them in your communications. The general rule I follow is to spell out the full company name the first time it is mentioned followed by its acronym in parenthesis, then use the abbreviation for all subsequent mentions. For example, I would write the National Association of Realtors (NAR) for the first mention, then NAR for all other subsequent mentions in the same story.

5. Edit your message. Review and rewrite it until it sounds right. You can usually cut the first draft in half. It might be helpful to read it out loud so you can hear how it sounds to your own ears, or read it to one or two other people who can provide feedback.

Your communications don’t have to be complex and confusing. Keep it simple. When you use plain English to write or speak your message, you will not only communicate more clearly and succinctly, you will win the respect of your audience.

Six Words and Phrases That Should Be Used Sparingly

notepad-117597_1280Have you ever noticed the knee-jerk reactions people have when you use certain phrases or words?

It’s not that those words are offensive in and of themselves. But their meanings tend to conjure up connections in the brain that triggers an emotional response.

While we can’t completely avoid using these terms all the time, we can be mindful of how and when we use them, and the impact they can have. In some cases, those words can mean something different than what we intended.

I’ve compiled a list of “cautionary” words that can wreak havoc on meaningful conversations. There are more words, I’m sure, but this brief list should get you started thinking about the way we convey meaning in our everyday conversation with our word choices.

Compromise. 
At first glance, “compromise” seems like an innocent word. After all, people use it all the time in the act of negotiating. The problem stems from the implication that we must give up something in a compromise in order to get something else, which is counterproductive. Do compromises ever give you everything you want in the arrangement? Usually it means all parties involved are not getting something they want. Compromise doesn’t give you the results you ultimately seek, which is a win-win situation.

What if we switched out compromise in favor of collaboration? If we collaborate on a work arrangement, a deal, or a new song, a sense of equal partnership is implied. Even saying the word aloud – collaboration – has a different feel to it. It feels more inclusive than compromise. With collaboration, everybody wins.

Think how much more productive our members of Congress would be if they chose to collaborate on legislation rather than compromise?

Freelance. 
Some years ago, a young writer I met at a conference explained that she stopped referring to herself as a freelancer. “Whenever I told a client that I was a freelance writer, they tended to hear only the first half of the word and assumed my services were free.”

The woman made a good point. If you are starting out on your own and you identify yourself as a freelancer, are you unwittingly setting up an expectation among potential clients that your services are cheaper than other independent contractors?

A better option is “independent” or no descriptive term at all. Do you really need to identify yourself as an independent anything? In most cases, just saying, “I’m a business writer” or “I’m a photojournalist and graphic designer” are sufficient enough on their own to explain what you do without adding a “freelance” description.

Hate. 
I will write this once and never again: I hate the word “hate.” It’s such a strong, angry word that incites aggressive responses in people. I prefer the word “dislike,” which I suppose reflects my kinder, gentler approach to life.

I refuse to say or write that I hate another person, only that I dislike their opinions, dislike their attitude, or dislike the way they dress. Other comparable but less suggestive words: detest, loathe, abhor. Yes, they are as strong as hate, but they’re not nearly as hateful.

Diet. 
Another word that appears innocent enough at first glance, but can suggest negative meaning to some people because it makes them feel self-conscious, especially about their appearance. Diet, much like the word compromise, implies a loss of something or giving up something to get what you want. In this case, diet implies giving up certain types of foods that you enjoy in order to lose pounds. In fact, the word diet has almost become synonymous with “sacrifice.” Diet also implies a short-term solution to an eating problem.

The alternative phrases that I prefer are “eating habits” or “meal plan.” Rather than say, “I need to go on a diet,” which sounds negative and not enticing, instead say, “I plan to change my eating habits,” which is more positive and forward thinking.

No. 
Ever notice a person’s facial expression or physical reaction after you said no to their request? They sometimes look like they’ve been punched in the gut. No is one of those words that has an explosive effect, like a gun going off in the middle of the quiet evening.

While many times, saying no is necessary, there are ways to say no with less force and impact. For example, if your child asks for a snack before dinner, don’t just say no; instead, say “Yes, but after you’ve finished your dinner.” Or, to answer a worker’s request to leave work early, you can respond, “Yes, but please turn in your monthly reports before you leave.

I’m sorry. 
This has become one of the most overused phrases in business writing. Have you ever caught yourself writing to a client, “I’m sorry for getting back to your request so late.” It might sound sincere, but it also comes across as lacking confidence

In this instance, it might be better to use “thank you” to introduce the note. “Thank you for notifying me of your problem. Let me look into it and see how we can fix it for you.” This response sounds more positive and engaging without putting yourself down in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. Apologies are necessary if you are truly sorry about something that happened. But to continually use “I’m sorry” in business communications gives the impression that you lack confidence in yourself.

Whether used in personal discussions or in business communications, be aware of the words and phrases you use. Some can create negative feelings where none was intended.

Nine Easy Ways to Expand Your Vocabulary

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Whether you are a budding writer or a working professional in a non-communications role, your ability to communicate depends on an expansive vocabulary. As children and young adults, we learn new words at a fairly high rate. By the time kids reach age six, they know close to 13,000 words, according to Scholastic.com. Most native English-speaking adults have mastered 20,000 to 35,000 words, according to TestYourVocab.com. Sadly, vocabulary growth tends to slow down for most adults by the time they reach mid life.

When it comes to reading and writing, learning new words and broadening our scope of language and understanding can only serve to make our story telling skills even better. With each new word we learn, it’s only natural that we want to implement it right way into our everyday conversation, to display our newfound knowledge.

Whether you want to become a better writer or just want to impress your friends with your growing lexicon of language, here are a few easy tricks to expand your vocabulary.

1. Read, read, read. This is obvious. The more you read, the more you will absorb the writer’s meaning through language. And the more diverse your reading materials – from historical fiction novels and celebrity memoirs to newspapers and medical journals – the more expansive your vocabulary will become.

2. Play games and puzzles. Crosswords and other word puzzles are not only fun, but they help build your understanding of words. A site like TestYourVocab.com offers several self-tests and exercises to help you determine how expansive your vocabulary is.

3. Keep a dictionary and thesaurus at your side when you read. This is a no-brainer. These valuable tomes are your best friends whenever you read or write.

4. Read the dictionary. Yes, you read that right. Read the dictionary front to back as if you were reading a novel. A grade-school classmate of mine did that in seventh grade. While other kids in the class were throwing spit balls, my classmate sat quietly at his desk studying the dictionary. It did not surprise me to learn several years later that he earned a perfect high score on his ACT test.

Take a page or two a day and study each word on the page. Note how many of them are unfamiliar to you. Little by little, your vocabulary will grow.

5. Take a class on a topic unfamiliar to you. If you don’t have the time or patience to read a text book, taking a class might be the next best thing to help you build your vocabulary. For example, when I took a personal training certification class a few years ago, I was exposed to terms and phrases related to exercise physiology, nutrition and physical fitness, not part of my everyday language, but it did give me some additional exposure to words I never would have learned otherwise. If medical science isn’t your forte, try other topics, such as gardening, carpentry or cooking.

6. Keep a vocabulary log. Each time you come across a word that is unfamiliar to you, write it down in a journal. In the space next to it, look up the word in a dictionary and write down the definition. The practice of writing it down will help commit the information to your memory.

I just started doing this with the book I’m currently reading, where I have easily written down up to three or four new words per page. Now I wish I had started doing this practice a long time ago. I can only imagine how much more comprehensive my vocabulary would be now.

7. Talk to people. Have conversations. Every now and then, take your nose out of a book, laptop or iPhone and look around you. The next time you visit a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with people in line or sitting at a table by themselves. Listen to the way they speak. What words do they use?

8. Visit sites like Vocabulary.com, a free online learning platform that helps students, teachers and communicators build their vocabulary. The site offers online games and exercises as well as tools to help you build vocabulary lists. There are other online platforms and apps available for the same purpose. No matter which you decide to choose, they are designed to help you build your vocabulary in fun, interesting ways.

9. Start writing, and keep writing. The more you write, the better you become at writing and the more words you will learn to use along the way.

When you engage in any one, two or three of these techniques on a regular basis, you’ll see your vocabulary grow exponentially in a short matter of time.