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Leverages a proprietary coaching framework...purposeful investments in human capital...aligning people and systems in pursuit of...

Why do people write like that?

The following example dramatizes the absurdity of such noncommunication:

"Bob" runs a consulting and training business that helps entrepreneurs, business owners, and managers become more effective leaders. He's going over a few details with his new receptionist when a sharp-dressed man (any ZZ Top fans out there?) in a suit and tie walks in.

Bob looks up, smiles, and says, "Good afternoon, Sir. How can I help you?

The man replies, "Sir, I'm a business owner, and I've been searching for a good consulting firm that focuses on leadership issues. I was in this building for a meeting with my accountant, and when I walked by your office and saw the name of your business... well, something just clicked with me. Got a few minutes to talk?"

Bob shows Mr. Sharp-Dressed Man to his office, and they both take a seat.

"So," the man asks, "can you tell me exactly what it is that Leader Coaching does?"

"Sure," Bob says, "I'd be happy to tell you about us."

"Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals."

As a confused look washes over the prospect's face, Bob attempts to "clarify" his answer:
"In other words, Sir, Leader Coaching's services meet the expectations of business leaders who recognize the value of purposeful investments in human capital—often beginning with themselves—as a means of preparing and aligning people and systems in pursuit of growth."

At that, Mr. Sharp Dressed Man says, "O...K. Well, um... thanks. I... uh... I'll... I'll keep that in mind." And he leaves, never to be heard from again.

Can you blame him?

Don't Succumb to the Disease of "Corporatese"

"Leverages a proprietary coaching framework"? "Purposeful investments in human capital"? Aligning people and systems in pursuit"? Say what?

Can you imagine ever talking to a client or prospect in that manner? No, of course not. And nor would you put such gibberish on your website. (You wouldn't, would you?)

Yet, save for the first four words of the second quote, all the highlighted copy was taken, verbatim, from an active website written almost entirely in "corporatese." (I've changed the company name to protect the guilty.)

Corporatese, as you might expect, is the collective term for the jargon, phrases, and fad words many writers use to make their communications and businesses seem more substantial and important. (Not!)

Those who write in corporatese love a paradigm, whether it's new, shifting, or otherwise. And they would never think of simply using something when they can leverage it.

Those who write in corporatese are really into activities such as aligning people—or should it be aligning human capital?

One would think you get major corporatese points for using—oops, leveraging—the phrase aligning human capital. (What a warm, fuzzy term. Who among us does not enjoy being referred to as human capital?)

For sure, human capital has been overwhelmingly embraced by the corporatese-speaking community, with more than three times the number of search-engine results for even paradigm shift.

People (oops again)—Human capital, we have a new leader in the clubhouse!

But I digress.

So if corporatese is the problem, what is the solution? I'll present two: One is a strategy, the other is a tool.

To highlight the strategic solution, I'll turn to Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and, surprisingly enough, the A-Team's Mr. T:

  • "I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences. That is the way to write English. It is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in." —Mark Twain
  • "It is not enough to write so that you can be understood; you must write so clearly that you cannot be misunderstood." —Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Or, if you prefer your tenets to be even more succinct, here's how Mr. T puts it: "Don't gimme none o' that jibba-jabba!"

Whether you prefer the more eloquently worded advice of Twain and Emerson or the more terse counsel of Mr. T, acting on the wisdom of those words will serve you, your writing, and your readers well.

For example, it's hard to imagine that the writer cited earlier would have churned out such "jibba-jabba" if he'd had the above quotes within eyesight or in mind when writing.

A Helpful but Overlooked Tool

Now, on to the writing-tool solution, which I'm happy to report is—literally—right at your fingertips. As everyone knows, the Spelling & Grammar feature in Microsoft Word identifies obvious spelling and grammatical errors.

In some instances, it even offers suggested revisions. In addition, once the application has finished checking your text, a window pops up. The window gives you a readout on 10 components of your writing, the four most helpful being...

  1. Words per sentence (average)
  2. Percentage of sentences written in the passive voice
  3. Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) score
  4. Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level (FKGL) score

Let's review why paying attention to those four readouts can improve your writing:

  • Words per sentence. In general, the longer the sentence, the harder it is for your reader to follow along. That's not to say you should always write in short sentences. What you should strive for is variety that makes for interesting and engaging reading. But if your sentences are, on average, 25 words long, then your copy probably isn't as readable as you want it be.
  • Percentage of sentences written in the passive voice. If your objective is to engage, involve, and influence your reader, then write predominantly in the active voice. Note the difference between "Once the button has been clicked, the order is generated." and "When you click the button, we immediately generate your order." The former reads like Christmas-party conversation with the dull, nerdy guy in the IT department (not that all IT guys are dull and nerdy), while the latter reads like you're talking with the energetic, service-focused gal in Sales.
  • FRE score. The FRE score was developed in 1948 by author and writing consultant Rudolf Flesch. Widely considered one of the most accurate readability formulas, the FRE score is based on a range of 0-100, with lower values for harder text and higher values for easier text.

    For example, a typical issue of Reader's Digest earns an FRE score of around 65 while Time magazine scores in the low 50s. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address scores a 74.2.

    By comparison, the "about us" text in the opening example of this article has an FRE score of 16.8, and the "clarification" text scores 14.8. In both instances, the copy is less readable than even a US tax form.
  • FKGL. The FKGL score, developed by Flesch and John P. Kincaid, is an add-on to the FRE score. As its name implies, the score indicates the number of years of education generally required to understand your text. And, generally speaking, you want to write at a level ranging from the seventh to the 10th grade.

    For example, most newspapers in the United States are written at a seventh- to eighth-grade level. By contrast, in the consultant/prospect example, the "about us" line is written at a grade level of 16.8, while the grade level for Bob's "clarification" is 21.4 (not good).

But enough about how bad the writing is in our example. How might one make it better?

I'll tackle the "about us" line. (For the "clarification" copy, the best I could come up with is to edit it out entirely.) Currently, the "about us" line reads, "Leader Coaching leverages a proprietary coaching framework, proven over years of practical application and success, to collaborate with clients in pursuit of shared goals."

I would recast it as follows:

"Leader Coaching uses a proven coaching system to help clients manage their people and their business for greater profit."

I've edited the sentence down from 24 words to 19, raised the FRE score to 49.5, and lowered the grade level to 11. "But," you might say, "you left out the fact that the firm uses a 'proprietary' system."

The person reading the line doesn't care about that fact. Proprietary is a "me" word, not a "you" word, as in "Oh, we need to let people know that this is a proprietary system that we developed ourselves."

Having that fact posted on your website might be good for your corporate and personal ego, but it doesn't mean anything to the prospect visiting your website.

Leverages a proprietary coaching framework...purposeful investments in human capital...aligning people and systems in pursuit of...

Why do people write that way?

I don't know for sure. What I do know is that it's flat out bad communication, and bad communication is bad for you, bad for your reader, and, if you're communicating in a commercial way, bad for business.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Even if you're not a professional writer, even if you're not a particularly good writer, if you'll...

  1.  Keep the words of Twain, Emerson—and, yes, even Mr. T—within eyesight when writing
  2. And take full advantage of the helpful tool that is, literally, right at your fingertips...

...you can and will write better.

Continue reading "Why Do People Write Like That? (And How You Can Avoid Doing the Same)" ... Read the full article

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

image of Ernest Nicastro

Ernest Nicastro is an award-winning B-to-B freelance copywriter who is also equally adept at crafting B-to-C content. For more information, and to review samples of his work, visit Positive Response.

LinkedIn: Ernest Nicastro

Twitter: @enicastro