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Three Gaffes to Avoid in Marketing Content and Public Speaking

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"Every time you open your mouth to speak, your mind goes on parade." —Anonymous

The same holds true for the written word of course. And, clearly, in business we'd prefer that our mind parade itself with the precision and professionalism of a military marching band or the beauty and elegance of the Rose Bowl pageant. As opposed to, say, the farce and flamboyance of the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade.

Fortunately, the typical business communications mistakes I read and hear rarely reach the level of laughable inelegance that is the hallmark of the Dooh Dah event. Those slip-ups more closely equate to missteps. They won't stop the parade, but they will detract from it. In today's article I highlight three such slip-ups.

1. Forte

You're at a tradeshow and it's the end of the day. You and another woman step onto the elevator, still wearing your nametags. You make eye contact and smile politely. Commenting on the name of her company, you break the ice. "Ironclad Cloud, I like that. Cloud security, right?" Good marketer that she is, she launches into her elevator speech. "Yes," she begins, "cloud security is our forte," pronouncing the word for-tay, stressing the second syllable.

Misstep. Meaning "strong point, something at which one excels," the word has traditionally been pronounced fort. But over the years it came to be confused with the Italian musical direction (to sing or play loudly), forte, pronounced for-tay. To quote Charles Harrington Elster from his book, The Accidents of Style, "For better or worse, this is now the dominant pronunciation in American speech." The pronunciation used by our elevator companion though, is an affectation to be avoided.


2. Fulsome

I'll stick with the tradeshow theme. It's the big luncheon and your keynoter has been welcomed to the podium with an effusive introduction. "Wow!" he says. "Thank you. I'm excited to be here today. In fact, after such fulsome praise as John so kindly accorded me in his introduction, I can't wait to hear what I have to say!"

Misstep. Fulsome is a troublesome word, and careful communicators would do well to leave it be. Indeed, linguist Bryan Garner, author of Garner's Modern American Usage, labels fulsome a "skunked term." It's easy to understand why. (For a complete list of Garner's skunked terms email me, subject line: Skunked.) Use fulsome correctly, and a large swath of your audience will likely misinterpret what you mean. Use the word incorrectly, and another contingent will "tsk, tsk" you. Still others will be confused about what you're trying to communicate.

To illustrate, below are two recent usages of fulsome. The first example is from the website for the New Yorker magazine, the second from the New York Times. Interestingly enough, both writers use the word to comment on the same event.

"Congressional Republicans heaped fulsome praise on President Obama's second Inaugural Address today..."

"In 2010, when the new government of Prime Minister David Cameron turned to austerity policies, it received fulsome praise from many people on this side of the Atlantic."

The New Yorker gets it right. Fulsome, most correctly, means "cloying, excessive, disgusting; fulsome praise, exaggerated flattery." (Both the Associated Press Stylebook and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage offer the same guidance. But obviously, some writers at the Times get a pass on fulsome.) Let's be honest, short of waking up one morning to the sun rising in the west, can you ever imagine congressional Republicans heaping genuine praise on President Obama?

Nevertheless, most online dictionaries list "abundant or copious" as one definition for fulsome. That lack of clarity is reason enough to avoid the word. The fact that it can have mixed meanings among large sections of your audience makes it a poor choice for clear, precise communication. So, per Mr. Garner, treat fulsome like you would a skunk. Stay away from it.

3. Peruse

You're back from a successful tradeshow, and after cleaning up your email inbox you're sorting through your postal mail. You come to a letter from your elevator companion, the woman from Ironclad Cloud. You're impressed with her timely follow-up and the fact that the letter relates details about your company to specific ways Ironclad's services can benefit you. Toward the end of the letter, though, Ms. Ironclad writes, "So please take a few minutes to quickly peruse our website for more information about how Ironclad Cloud can secure your cloud and save you time and money."

Misstep. Actually this is closer to a stumble. First, never use peruse. Ever. It's stilted and smacks of self-importance. Besides, there's a perfectly good word that doesn't come with this baggage: read. Second, the writer's phrasing of quickly peruse compounds her bad choice. Because peruse, most correctly, means "to read thoroughly or with great care." That said, the word is often used incorrectly, as evidenced by the 60,000+ results you'll get when you Google the exact phrase "quickly peruse." So, to repeat, never use peruse. Banish it from your "parade." After all, you're much too cool to make such an uncool word choice.

Summing up, then: your foremost goal as a business communicator is to be readily and easily understood. All else—connection, engagement, persuasion—begins there. To achieve ready and easy understanding, always use clear, precise, and unambiguous language. Make every effort to parade your mind with precision and professionalism, whether that parade takes place in an elevator, a banquet room, or on a sheet of stationery.


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Ernest Nicastro is a copywriter and marketing consultant with Positive Response who strives always to conduct his and his clients' parades with precision and professionalism. Contact Ernest via enicastro@positiveresponse.com.

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  • by Dan Soschin Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    I perused the article and would like to offer my fulsome praise for writing about this topic, clearly your forte. :P

    Actually, this is great content. Thanks for sharing. As someone who presents regularly, I realize how important it is to choose your words carefully. Your advice is right on the mark - I will avoid those three words.

  • by AJM Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Great article. I have battled many people on the meaning of "peruse"- so I thought it was interesting that someone else recognized the correct definition of this word that is used incorrectly so frequently that the opposite definition is accepted. I always advise business professionals to keep it simple. If you don't have an extensive vocabulary or are unsure of a word choice, it's always better to speak in laymen's terms and not confuse your audience or yourself.

  • by Donna Jenkins Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Ernest, these are great tips! Thank you for putting this list together and I can hardly wait to receive the expanded "skunked word list"! Dan stole my thunder with his first sentence, so I won't repeat. I like your sense of humor Dan! :)

  • by Steve Fowler Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Great article. I've done a fair bit of writing and editing and have become a firm believer in simply avoiding a word if you are not certain of all its meanings. Have to ask though; is the sun rising in the east really that unusual in your neighbourhood? ;-)

  • by Tom Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    I agree with you comment on "peruse", am happy to agree with your comment on "fulsome" but "forte" I think is a bit more open to debate - even the Oxford English Dictionary lists both pronunciations.

  • by Julia Stewart Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Great article, thanks to Ernest and MarketingProfs! We shouldn't underestimate the value of getting right those seemingly small "details", including word choice. I'm guessing we can all point to a situation where such details were of make-or-break importance. For example, prospective clients (and employers!) make hiring decisions based on it. So today we're challenged to be big-picture, strategic thinkers who can also execute the details properly.

  • by Victoria Ipri Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Excellent stuff, Ernest... I have duly shared it. Question: what are your thoughts on the phrase "begs the question"? Seems this is also misused frequently.

  • by Chris Finnie Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    These are not ones I run across a lot. But "simplistic" is one word I hear people misuse pretty regularly. They think it means simple. Though why they can't just say that, I don't know. However, as we all know, it actually means "oversimplified." Sort of the equivalent of "dumbing down."

    I've been a professional writer for more than 30 years, and I still look words up. My general rule of thumb is, if I'm not positive what a word means or how to spell it, I either look it up to check, or I don't use it. The problem is that, after hearing a word misused a number of times, people do believe they know what it means. You have no idea how I've had to argue with folks who think "premise" is correct when they mean "premises." One fellow even sent me an article in an online publication to prove his point. I responded with links to a few online dictionaries to show the author of the article was mistaken.

    Another problem is that a lot of people think a longer word makes them sound more intelligent. But, if they use the word incorrectly, it has the opposite effect. Plus, it can make their prose sound stuffy, stilted, and unapproachable.

  • by Jordan Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Love this! Great content, easy to digest and use immediately--my favorite kind!

  • by B. Thornell Tue Jul 9, 2013 via mobile

    I avoid the word forte, because of the inevitable snickers and corrections from people who know, absolutely, that the wrong pronunciation is right.

  • by wayne@wensmedia.com Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Do clients want a copywriter who only "strives always to conduct his and his clients' parades with precision and professionalism" or one who actually achieves that goal?

  • by Lynn Hamilton Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Good piece. Certainly, those will be words I won't use during my next Toastmaster's speech. :c)

  • by win blevins Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Silly stuff, and only half true.

  • by Astrelfrog Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Use the language your people are used to hearing, and be hanged about dictionary definition and proper usage if you want to make the sale. If you sound like a Yankee in the south, or an American in Texas, you probably aren't going to go home with an order in your pocket. Speaking of which: "a skunked term" isn't very clear if you come from where the black and white striped kitty cats roam.

  • by Kent V Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    Obscure examples, but good principles. I think a worse offender than "forte" is the confusion of "cache" with "cachet" and it's showing up everywhere from the military to career counseling. All exacerbated no doubt by the mangling such foreign terms get in marketing (witness the McDonald's "frappe' " with a second syllable). But then I guess the automotive trade once upon a time sort of had us tickled by a car that could make us erupt like we'd had too many fig bars (Fahrvergnügen).

  • by Steve Tue Jul 9, 2013 via web

    I couldn't agree more with the guy who understands where the Mason Dixon line is located. Mr Nicastro, while a fine linguist, is far to sophisticated for the day to day sales game.

  • by Vahe, MarketingProfs Wed Jul 10, 2013 via web

    @Steve Fowler, thanks for pointing that out! Corrected now.

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jul 10, 2013 via web

    Thank you all for your comments. I was out all day yesterday and I'm a little late to respond, so my apologies. Thanks Dan S, AJM, Donna and Steve for your kind words. Glad you found my effort worthwhile. Steve, thanks also for catching my gaffe. The sun does indeed rise in the east in my neighborhood. I've asked the good people at MarketingProfs to correct it but I shall duly spend the rest of the week wiping egg off of my face. As to forte, duly noted Tom.

    Julia S., there's a comment by Garner in his excellent guide: "Writing reflects thinking." So it's always in our best interest to write as clearly and precisely as we can. Victoria, "begs the question" does not mean "to invite an obvious follow-up question," as it is so often mistakenly used. Google it for all the details.

    Chris, I agree wholeheartedly with your meticulous approach to writing and the style notes as well. Thanks Jordan, glad you found it helpful. B. Thornell, I understand. But the flip side of that is when you do use it correctly, you'll sometimes elicit favorable commentary. It's happened to me. Duly noted Wayne. I'm a Toastmaster myself, Lynn and as you might expect the Grammarian is one of my favorite roles to perform. Win, can you be a little more specific? Astrelfrog, Steve, uh, OK. Duly noted.

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jul 10, 2013 via web

    Kent I agree with you that these examples are probably not in heavy rotation with most marketing professionals but glad you found value in the principles. I've written before about other more common usage errors such as hone for home (as in "hone in") "comprised of" and others. That piece is on MarketingProfs as well.

  • by IanW Wed Jul 10, 2013 via web

    Interesting stuff Ernest. I wasn't aware of the "forte" point, but now you mention it, it does seem logical.

    Mind you, there are many examples of apparently misused and mispronounced words that have been borrowed from other languages - and this goes for both directions - and these can eventually become standard pronunciation and usage if (mis)used often enough over time.

    There's an endless list of examples. "Sombrero" is a generic term for any hat to a Spaniard or Mexican but has a much more specific meaning when borrowed into English. You will never hear French people shouting "encore" at the end of a great performance (they would shout "bis" - "again") and my French friends persist in (mis)pronouncing "sandwich" as "sondwich" and "internet" as "anternet". They've even corrupted words we stole from them! They order "biftek" in restaurants and call me a "rosbif" - both of which words they've taken from the English word "beef" which is our pronunciation of their word "boeuf". Even within the same (ish) language French people of both genders go out to work at a manly "le job" whereas Quebecers see their careers as more feminine and go to "la job".

    You yourself used that quaintly idiosyncratic local word "elevator" when I think you meant to use the English word "lift". (We invented it - that's why it's got our name on it :) !)

  • by Ernest Nicastro Wed Jul 10, 2013 via web

    Thanks for the comment, IanW -- and the education. A fun read.

  • by Ajay Prasad Thu Jul 11, 2013 via web

    Amazing and really a very fascinating article, I must say. It has actually grabbed my attention.I really appreciate your effort for writing this article and sharing this with us. I enjoyed reading it. I am sure, people will definitely learn something out of it.

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