What is often termed Business / Corporate English has become little more than dead code, a lacklustre collection of weak and overused phrases stretched unevenly across an unimaginative vocabulary. And it’s not confined to English. There are very similar deathwish trends affecting French, Spanish, German and most other developed-world languages.
The real problem is that corporate communications in writing is becoming unintelligible, a rambling inchoate hybrid of imprecise word constructions that are often deliberately vague or misleading, barely comprehensible only to those with the means to decode them. Elon Musk referred to the unexpected explosion of his Spacex Starship as “a rapid unscheduled disassembly”.
This use of selected vocabulary becomes habitual, often through working for the same or similar companies. The language use represents an acceptance that such words are indeed meaningless, just as entire congregations of the faithful, in deeply religious environments, regularly 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. And such words are, I must remind you, infinite through renewal, rebirth and imaginative creation.
Our language has to improve because there is huge competition for readers’ attention, with the multiplying social media and online channels. Our attention while writing or reading is being constantly diverted to social media and link-bait 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 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 behaviour. The best words educate; they 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, it could ever be seen in creative writing, for example in poetry. So avoid clichés whenever you can, unless, of course, you invent your own words and phrases: these are cliché-killers.
This is how language renews itself. Shakespeare invented hundreds of new words and phrases which entered the language because of his creativity and his unwillingness to use whatever the current clichés were. So use new words, freshly minted, or old words that will retain their value, like strong currencies. The fact that both people and organizations converse in real time, all the time, means that our language investments are serious business often with serious material implications.
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. So use words well, or lose them, badly.