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Love, Signals, Noise... and Great Business Writing

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Great business writing is love, language, and commitment.

Many years ago, I fell in love. Early on I told my beloved, "I will not only anticipate your needs, I'll exceed them. I'll listen. I'll work overtime to understand your goals. I will optimize my love for you. Here's my promise: I will deliver, 24/7."

"Get real," Maria said. She raised one super thin, highly manicured eyebrow and took my measure. "Die, you annoying little man," her eyebrow said.

As she slipped from my grasp, I doubled down. "Maria, my process is proven—attention, collaboration, immersion, romantification, creation. You and me. On time, on budget. All the way baby."

She married some other guy—a DUI attorney from Vegas.


My uninspired declarations, so much vapor at the launch pad of love, failed. Mission aborted.

How many of us who are crazy in love with what we do—whether we're healthcare practitioners, financial planners, or restaurateurs—use language that drives customers and potential customers into the arms of the other guy?

Far too many, I think. And here's the thing. The problem is the same as it ever was. I'm talking about commitment.

The difference between a love that lasts and one that doesn't? Usually commitment. The difference between a brand that uses language beautifully and well and strategically and one that doesn't? Commitment.

Great business writing makes a commitment to people—to whoever is part of the brand experience: employees, customers, investors, vendors, prospects and so forth. (Notice I didn't use that word that begins with "stake" and ends with "holders.") The commitment is rooted in a deep respect for the reader's time, intelligence and need for useful information.

The routine (unthinking) use of language is a sign that we haven't made the commitment. And that we don't fully get that our words are signifiers. Words are signals of meaning and intent.

There is more noise out there than ever before. So when we find ourselves utilizing using words like utilize instead of use, we're just making noise. When we use language like "superior cost efficiency" or "customer targeting solutions," we're adding to the noise.

We're telling the world we can't be bothered to find a simple, human, and direct way to say what we do. And we reveal something much more troubling. "People who think well, write well," said David Ogilvy. Good writing is the clearest indicator of good thinking.

Can you imagine telling this to someone you meet in the buffet line at your friend's wedding?

"Yeah, my new gig is customer targeting solutions."
"Cool," says your new friend.
"Yeah," you say, "our solutions come with superior cost efficiencies built right in."
"Wow, that is amazing," says your now ex-friend as she races away in search of an extra-large cocktail.

One man who speaks about noise (and signals) is Nate Silver, the New York Times blogger and author, famous for his uncanny skill at predicting elections. He writes in his book, The Signal and the Noise, "the signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth."

So it is with writing in business. Superior cost efficiencies is pure noise and distracts from the truth. Utilize is noise and distracts us from the truth. Customer targeting solutions is noise and distracts us from the truth. You can find a thousand more examples, and so can I.

So what to do? Here's a takeaway medley for you:

  1. Think a bit. Spend a little time to rethink your purpose and your commitment to your audience. Everything about your brand begins with words. Start with your value proposition. Make your language mean something. Take a risk. Tell us what truly matters most to you.
  2. Take a look around. How many of the world's websites have in their navigation menu Our Services and About Us? Bla, bla, bla. Is there anything wrong with What We Do and Meet Our People? Opportunity is everywhere...
  3. Get to the heart of things. Don't let your language become glib and snarky. I love humor, but humor in business writing takes a very high skill level. A very little goes a long way. I advocate a considered, human and simple approach to telling your story. Friendly and conversational. Not casual.
  4. Break a rule or two. Americans are hung up on grammar: Thou shalt not disobey The Elements of Style. Conversational language is often not grammatically correct. So?
  5. Learn to love language. Language that is true and engaging and alive is one of the wonders of the world. It's not easy to achieve, but the journey is a wicked delight. Roll down the windows, feel the wind in your hair. Love life.

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Richard Pelletier is a writer for business. He's from the East Coast but now lives in Seattle. He is principal conductor at Lucid Content. He is one charming cat living with two sometimes difficult kitties.

LinkedIn: Richard Pelletier

Twitter: @lucidcontent

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  • by Beth VanStory Thu Sep 12, 2013 via web

    Thanks so much for this frank article. Today's jargon-filled writing is neither interesting nor impactful. Words can be so powerful when used well.

  • by Joe Thu Sep 12, 2013 via web

    Totally agree, just winced at "value proposition."

  • by Richard Pelletier Thu Sep 12, 2013 via web

    Thank you Beth VanStory. Kind of you to take a minute to comment. Joe, agreed on value proposition. We need a translation.

  • by Randy Milanovic Thu Sep 12, 2013 via iphone

    Spinsucks.com is addressing the issue of grammar right now. Check out their blog.

  • by Shelly Whitehead Thu Sep 12, 2013 via web

    Thank you. I so needed this today. Just the knowledge of other writers out there struggling through the "utilizes," "signages," and "functionalities" of everyday business life reminds me there is hope for mankind.

  • by Laura Scholes Thu Sep 12, 2013 via web

    Great article, Richard. I'm in a perpetual fight to destroy corporatese. Though not officially marketing, I find the job postings on Craigslist particularly egregious: "The Senior Business Systems Analyst serves as a senior-level business systems analyst for a variety of cross-functional business analysis activities. " Um, what would a person actually be doing in that job? Thanks for making the case for real writing!

  • by richard pelletier Sat Sep 14, 2013 via web

    Thanks to everyone for your comments and tweets. Very gratifying.

  • by Gill Faragher Mon Sep 16, 2013 via web

    Thanks for the inspiration. I have today vowed never to use the word 'specificities' again.

  • by John Balla Mon Sep 16, 2013 via web

    I really like your ideas here, Richard! I believe your fifth point may be what separates a good writer from a great writer because to me it shows when someone is doing something they love, and having a love of language is no exception.

  • by Ernest Nicastro Mon Sep 16, 2013 via web

    Excellent! So good I wish I'd written it myself.

  • by Michelle Troutman Thu Sep 19, 2013 via web

    Well-written. I shared your article on my Classy Writing Facebook page. I wrestle with the lack of concern for good grammar and the overuse of business-ese and corporate double-speak, too -- it's such a turn-off.

  • by Morgan Mason Tue Sep 24, 2013 via web

    This is actually a very thought-provoking piece--what in interesting perspective! I've been struggling with how to establish a voice in business content and I think I can take away a few gems of information here that will really help. Thanks Richard!

  • by Gracious Store Fri Sep 27, 2013 via web

    Commitment is all that matters in dealing with your employees and customers, you need not tell them how committed you are, they will simply experience and that determine their response to you.

  • by robertsmontgomery.com Thu Nov 28, 2013 via web

    Thank you, Richard. I like the love! It reminds me that one of the primary way we show our love of language is in the words we choose when we talk. So a good way to avoid corporatese and jargonalia is to begin writing with how you might say it. This lends the words a natural, straightforward tone. But then remember how writing differs from talking -- you only have words, not gesture, tone of voice or eye contact. So we can take advantage of our chance to do something we can't do in conversation: rewrite! Get it precise and concise. It'll still have the honesty, naturalness and friendly tone of the first draft, but honed just right. Mm.

  • by robertsmontgomery.com Thu Nov 28, 2013 via web

    And don't forget to proof! As I forgot in the third sentence of my comment above.

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