I was researching a company on its website. I was three pages deep. I turned to my colleague and said, “I have read three pages of this website and I still have no idea what they do — it’s just word salad.” What do I mean by word salad? I mean jargony nonsense — a bunch of words strung together that mean nothing. Like Shakespeare said:
Jargon’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets its hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
OK, I took a little artistic liberty there, but you get the point.
So take it from someone who spends A LOT of time reading websites, brochures, emails, and various other marketing items: jargon = bad; clear and simple = good. There is even a movement, the Plain Language movement (seriously, Google it); it’s not as exciting as a commune in the woods but it’s pretty exciting for a word nerd. So if you want to make “plain” the new “snark” — or just make sure your message is understood — follow these simple rules.
How do you avoid word salad in your content?
Shorter Is Better and Less Is More
Contrary to every high schooler’s belief, bigger words do not make you sound smarter. They often muddle the meaning and confuse the reader. So instead of a long string of $10 words, try a short, clear sentence that conveys your message thoughtfully and elegantly. As my journalism professor always told me, if you can say something in 10 words that you’ve said in 20 — make it 10. For starters, use:
- Active voice
- Short sentences
- Common, everyday language
Precision Is Priceless
I am a firm believer that there is a perfect word to express every thought. You just have to find it. But don’t turn to the thesaurus and pick any word willy-nilly. The thesaurus is not your friend. As any word junkie will tell you, language is full of nuance, and just because a word is similar doesn’t mean it’s the same. To strike the right balance of clarity and erudition, ensure you truly understand the words you are using. Sign up for one of those word-of-the-day emails, read more books (not chick lit, real lit), or make a habit of picking up a sophisticated publication that challenges you (more Economist, less Star). Alternatively, don’t use unfamiliar words — stick with what you know.
Audience Is Everything
Know whom you’re talking to and adjust your language to fit the audience. You could be writing for one client that is loose and fun, and then you have to switch to a more serious, professional tone — potentially one that has its own separate language. Regardless, you want to consistently apply the practice of keeping your communication simple, clear, and meaningful. Organize it logically with the reader in mind and don’t let design overwhelm the content — it should further your message. Your reader should be able to understand what you are saying and walk away with all the pertinent information.
Jargon Is Meaningless
As mentioned before, there is a whole Plain Language movement in writing, and for government employees it’s the law — seriously, it is. I am a huge fan of using plain language. The idea is that if you speak to people clearly, using common language that conveys true meaning, you can have a more worthwhile conversation with your audience. Basically, eliminate all the corporate jargon. The following are some examples that make my skin crawl, but I am sure everyone has their own favorites.
- Taking [anything] to the next level
- Build or grow your business
- Deep dive, drill down
- Synergies, synergistically
- Take this off-line
- Open the kimono
- Low-hanging fruit
- Optimize, maximize (all the -izes)
- Think outside the box
- Action item
- 30,000-foot view
- At the end of the day
- Circle back
I mean, does anyone even need to explain why kimonos should never be opened? Gross.
Long story short, it’s important to make sure that all your communications are widely accessible. You want your audience to find value in the content you produce. And they can’t do that if it just consists of a bunch of meaningless buzzwords and poorly used big words. As my friend says, “When you hit the buffet, skip the word salad.”
Contact me for more advice on how to optimize (see what I did there) your communication potential.