It Ain’t What You Say, It’s the Way That You Say It

It Ain’t What You Say, It’s the Way That You Say It

If there is one argument I love to have, it’s debating the concept of professional language. Too often, it describes flawed attempts to emulate an academic thesis or a Victorian bank manager. You know the sort of stuff—a white paper, official email or corporate website where the language is so dense, formal and archaic that your brain melts from the sheer dullness of it all.

How can that be considered professional? If your readers have to go over a sentence twice to glean the correct meaning, then your writing has failed. If your readers decide it’s too much effort to push beyond the opening paragraphs—never mind make it to the end—then your writing has failed. If your readers draw the wrong conclusions about your message, your brand or your product, then your writing has failed.

Show a Little Decorum

Professional language is that which conveys the right message to the right audience in the most appropriate and persuasive manner.

Classicists, rhetoricians and speechwriters have a word for this: Decorum. These days, the word ‘decorum’ is more often used to mean general politeness in various social settings; but its rhetorical definition is more specific—adapting one’s language and behaviour to suit the specific audience.

We all use decorum to a degree. Some of us have an almost chameleon-like skill to fit in with any group, whether a maiden aunt’s tea party or a bawdy group of lads down the pub. But businesses and marketers often struggle with this. Language and content are more often adapted to appeal to the Board, instead of the individual customer.

Yet, when used well, decorum can turn even the most casual use of language into a professional win. This Twitter conversation from 2014, between UK retailer Argos and a disgruntled customer, remains one of my favourite examples.

This Argos example illustrates perfectly that decorum is possible within a professional business context. Sure, the information contained in the reply wouldn’t have changed if the community manager had used formal language, but the message may have been received very differently by the customer—particularly as he already felt disrespected by a member of staff. The difference in tone and language would have been a wall between the brand and the customer that could have hampered attempts to resolve the situation.

Decorum works by appealing to our natural instinct to trust those most like ourselves or, at least, those who can demonstrate that they genuinely understand who we are. Differences in how we communicate can imply other differences, such as background, experience, education and attitude. We automatically assess these factors alongside the information contained in those words when deciding how much weight and trust to give the message.

Yes, authenticity is still important. The Argos tweet would never have worked if the community manager got any of the lingo even slightly wrong. Attempting to ape a style and missing can potentially be worse than sticking with your natural tone of voice.

While the slang dialect used by Argos may seem like a different language to many other customers watching the exchange, they were not the intended audience. This was a direct response to a particular customer in his dialect. The side effect was that the wider audience could see that, instead of expecting the customer to conform to the brand, the brand conformed to the customer—a very powerful statement.

Alternatively, much of the academic terminology, corporate jargon and buzzwords in so-called professional writing can be just as impenetrable or meaningless to the average person, but without the justification that the intended reader actually speaks that way.

Leveraging the Linguistic Learnings

I think a threw up a little in my mouth writing that subheading, but it illustrates just how inhuman so-called “professional language” has become. Anyway, the irony amuses me.

In my time, I’ve written a lot of corporate copy. On more than one occasion a client has edited or provided feedback on my copy that effectively peppers it with vague buzzwords, tortures the grammar and deletes anything approaching a human tone of voice. When I challenge this sort of feedback, the reasoning is always, “We think our version is more professional”. That’s usually the red flag that tells me it’s time to find a new client. Another red flag is, “I love it, but you need to make these changes before the CEO/Board/other stakeholders will approve it.” If it’s a choice between educating the boss or undermining the content, guess which side I’m on.

If I were cynical old bugger (don’t say it) I’d think the intention was to smudge over anything approaching clarity or emotion until it becomes a homogenised, generic slurry of corporate cliches. But that can’t really be the intention. No company would actively set out to make their content less clear, less competitive and less targeted to the customer. Would they?

This corporate tone of voice fascinates me because it definitely isn’t human. It is a highly conservative and reduced form of English that has evolved out of continual imitation and repetition within corporate circles. In this sense, professional language is about conformity and a fear of not fitting in with those deemed to already represent a successful corporate ideal. They don’t want to appear different to their competitors because being different can feel awfully like being wrong. And that reveals a lack of confidence.

So much for competitive advantage and brand differentiation.

The result is a generic kit of safe, inoffensive and important-sounding words and phrases that can be bolted together in almost any order to produce copy that conforms to this corporate norm, without necessarily saying anything of real substance. It is possible to write paragraph after paragraph about how the “enterprise-grade, mission critical solution” can “empower business goals” and “leverage strategic opportunities” that are “aligned with internal priorities” without once specifically describing how the product works!

Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

Corporate language is also about obfuscation or misdirection. Too often it is used to mask the uncomfortable truth that even the company isn’t sure what the product really does (I’ve certainly received briefs like this). On other occasions, it may be misguided, entitled bluster that hopes to assume authority without having earned it. “They seem like professionals, so the product must be good—whatever it is. We must obey our corporate overlords.”

Do You Speak My Language?

We’re constantly surrounded by these same empty phrases and buzzwords, so they can be the first to pop into your head when speaking or writing. It’s easier for the brain to pick a vague term that is at the top of your mental lexicon due to common usage than to dig deep for an original or more accurate phrase. In that way, buzzwords and cliches can infect everyone.

Professional content and copywriters have to remain vigilant, eliminating empty words and phrases from our content while resisting unhelpful feedback. We must always write for the target readership, not the board or CEO. We must banish the predictable and embrace the thesaurus. Above all, we must always get our message across.

That’s how to use language like a professional.