How To Cut Down the Business Speak in Your Writing

Let’s face it. CIOs have a language all their own that revolves around the technical nature of their jobs – but surely there are words that can be eliminated or at least reduced. Let’s take a look at business speak that needs to be muted.

Here are some examples via The Grammerly blog. Not confident with your writing skills? Grammerly is a great place to start. It’s a great resource for experienced and unconfident writers alike.

Anyway, it suggests not saying “goal oriented.” Sure, every smooth running organization has its goals. Otherwise, you’re just going along to get along. As Grammerly points out, “it has become meaningless in its overuse.” After all, any group that proclaims itself goal-oriented is either not or out of touch with just how little meaning the phrase has any more.

The next phrase Grammerly points to is “optimize.” In the business context it means to increase efficiency. Grammerly suggests, “Optimization is great—who doesn’t love efficiency?!—but overuse of the term can become annoying.” Make your business vocabulary more efficient by deleting use of the word “optimize.”

Another example to point to is “disrupt” in the context it is used in the tech and start-up universes. Grammerly says, “Most people use the term to mean something akin to ‘upsetting the old balance of power’ or ‘bucking expectations and completely changing the way things are done.’” In Grammerly’s view, you’re better off using more words in this case instead of “disruptive” to improve your writing. Heck, just use their phrases instead.

Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, an online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company dedicated to helping manufacturers publish documentation, tackled the topic of bad business writing for The Harvard Business Review in an articled titled, “Your Company Is Only As Good As Its Writing.”

As he pointed out, “We’re great at inventing terms — the instruction manual for my toaster refers to the lever that pops up the toast as the ‘Extra-Lift Carriage Control Lever’ — but poor at communicating what we actually mean.”

His company iFixIt has produced a free “Tech Writing Handbook” that could prove extremely helpful if you struggle with writing – and even if you don’t. It’s best advice is: be concise. As they say, “Be direct and get to the point. Then stop writing.” I would add to that but it would so go against the great advice.

There’s also good advice on making your paragraphs more effective. “Lead with the most important information: Front-load useful details. Assume that your reader isn’t going to slog through an entire paragraph.” That’s especially effective when communicating with busy executives like yourself. There is a lot of speed reading going on. Don’t bury the information. Put it in the first paragraph where it’s going to be seen.

Here’s some other good advice. The first sentence in your paragraph needs to be short. As iFixIt points out, “Short sentences are your friend: Writers eager to appear smart often use really, really, very quite long sentences. Pro tip: Don’t do it.” Grammerly that’s mentioned at the top of this piece is my go-to site for reviewing my work. (It’s a paid subscription.) One of its most common critiques is sentence length.

One recommendation iFixIt makes is sentences should be no more than 24 words. Frankly, that strikes me as kind of long. Even at that length you’re going to need punctuation to break up thoughts – and that can be a tricky thing.

Want to really get your point across? Read anything you write before sending it. If it sounds unnatural to your ear, it’s going to be awkward to your audience. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received is I write like I talk. (Of course I assume that’s a compliment.)

Finally, there is the a plea for simplicity in writing that is eloquently put by looking at Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural speech. As iFixIt observes, “Simplicity can be striking. We learned something surprising while reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser: ‘Of the 701 words in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, a marvel of economy in itself, 505 are words of one syllable and 122 are words of two syllables.”

Let that sink in for a moment. His entire speech was 701 words during one of the most divisive times in our nation’s history. For point of reference, this blog post is also about 700 words long – but I have no idea of the syllable breakdown.

Keith Griffin
Keith Griffin is an award-winning business writer and editor with more than 30 years experience as a journalist. His work has been published in The Boston Globe, Medical Economist, Good Housekeeping, About.com, the Hartford Courant, CT Law Tribune and numerous other regional publications.