Ten Tips towards Better Business English
What is often termed Business English has become little more than dead code, a lackluster collection of weak and overused phrases stretched unevenly across an unimaginative vocabulary. And it’s not confined to English.
The real problem is that corporate communications in writing is becoming unintelligible, a monstrous, rambling hybrid of imprecise word constructions that are deliberately vague or misleading, barely comprehensible only to those with the means to decode them. This is often through working for the same or similar companies, and the acceptance that such words are indeed meaningless, just as entire congregations of the faithful, in deeply religious environments, regularly just mutter words that they have learned by heart but have never put in practice.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Business in any language everywhere can be better. It can be memorable and lasting, impressive and striking. It can be simple, clear, expressive, descriptive. It all depends on the words you choose.
It has to be better because there is huge competition out there for readers’ attention, particularly now with all the social media and online channels. Our attention while writing or reading is being constantly diverted to social media and linkbait pictures. These are distracting because they are more interesting.
But words, if properly used, can divert attention even more effectively. If we try, we can choose punchy words with imagination and a desire to communicate your meaning quickly and effectively. Words chosen right can be weapons. They can start wars, cause conflict. They can also promote learning, insight, reflection, peace. Most of all, words can provoke action and change behavior. The best words promote understanding simply because they are easily understood.
If we can choose the right words, and add clarity, elegance and simplicity to what we want to say, then our language, our message, article, text or press release, will deserve attention and respect.
Clichés (which are rarely single words) are mostly irritating because they date very quickly. Texts full of clichés make the writer appear lazy and will kill the significance of the writing since it is clear that they have not been checked for relevance or impact. Clichés can also be a sign of arrogance, especially in business writing. They can imply a secret society of communications involving indecipherable acronyms and abbreviated phrases.
A good test for a cliché that should not be used in business writing is whether, outside uses in irony, you would ever see it in creative writing, for example in poetry. So avoid clichés whenever you can, unless, of course, you invent your own words and phrases in what I call cliché-killers.
And this is how language renews itself, by killing clichés. Shakespeare invented hundreds of new words and phrases which entered the language because of his creativity, his unwillingness to use whatever the current clichés were.
So use new words, freshly minted, or old words that will retain their value, just like currencies. The fact that both people and organizations converse in real time, all the time, means that our language investments are serious business. And find interesting words. Look for them in literature, not in advertising or PR or corporate communications. Literature compels attention because those who write it know that they have to make their writing as fresh as they possibly can for it to be read and enjoyed.
Follow suit in your companies, and people will notice the original, human, interesting tone of your work — and they will respond not in the way they respond to PR, but in the way they respond to great poems, stories, plays: with gratitude and even respect. They will remember you and your work.
Finally, here are ten tips on selecting the right words in the right order and on making written words and phrases simpler, clearer, and better understood.
- Always write in summary. Many people do not read: they scan and they skim with finger on a touchpad cursor. So keep everything short, simple and punchy
- Align the word you use to the meaning you want. If you are not circling back, then don’t say you are. Say you are returning or coming back. Avoid words that promote uncertainty on the type of contact, such as “reach out”, “touch base”.
- Use active not passive verbs. Active verbs give your prose energy. For “The meeting was opened by Jane”, write “Jane opened the meeting.” It’s more obvious in sport – “the ball was kicked by Messi?” No. “Messi kicked the ball”
- Use short words when you can. “Endeavour” and “transition” are better as “try”, “change” or “move”. Shorter words make your writing more effective.
- Limit adverbs an adjectives. Don’t let them get out of hand. Many can be dropped in favour of a better single verb or noun. But if you are trying to sound sophisticated, then you need lots of adverbs and adjectives for that.
- Observe the most basic grammar rules but ignore the fine details if they get in the way. Achieving complete clarity justifies your grammar (but not your spelling or punctuation). Perfect English grammar just doesn’t exist.
- Take care with clichés Clichés are mostly phrases, not words. Some words cannot be replaced. The context, not the use, makes the cliché.
- Cut out all words not needed. Then when you’ve finished, do it again (because it can always be done twice).
- Use an unusual or counter-intuitive word occasionally where you can. That’s what creative writers do; it’s why they are needed for the revival of effective business writing. That word will get noticed so prepare to justify it.
- Try to use poetic devices occasionally and when possible, for example: alliteration, metre, rhyme, creative metaphor. It will improve your writing.