The Blacklist

no-more-jargon-content-marketingIt’s kind of a love-hate thing. My feelings about The Blacklist, that is.

If you haven’t seen the NBC crime drama, the basic premise is a most-wanted criminal turns himself in to the FBI and offers to help them track down a “blacklist” of elusive criminals they have a mutual interest in eliminating.

What I love: James Spader. I’m a long-time fan and he’s done it again: Created an intriguing and unlikeable character who can’t be trusted – and who you can’t help rooting for.

What I hate: The over-the-top creepiness of the bad guys and gruesomeness of the crimes. (I’ve stopped watching the show near bedtime.)

I’ve got a similar love-hate thing with jargon. Business jargon, that is.

What I love: Jargon is like shorthand, perfect for those days when a project deadline looms and I’m feeling rushed or lazy.

What I hate: It’s as far from writing in an “authentic” voice as you can get.

If you’re not sure what I mean, here’s a good example from a Harvard Business Review post by Bryan A. Garner: “It’s mission-critical to be plain-spoken, whether you’re trying to be best-of-breed at outside-the-box thinking or simply incentivizing colleagues to achieve a paradigm shift in core-performance value-adds.”

Garner’s post includes a “Bizspeak Blacklist,” dozens of words and phrases that he says should “never find their way into print.” I cringed at how many of these have shown up in my work – and how phony they sound when pulled out of context. Other online lists included jargon I’ve never heard before, like “tiger team,” “swim lane,” and “over the wall.”

Writing like a person – not an institution – isn’t easy, especially if you or your clients work in an industry rife with buzzwords, clichés and acronyms. But effective communication is all about using clear, simple language to get to the point. Piling on the clichés can be confusing, pretentious, even meaningless. Instead of sounding smart, our writing ends up sounding like – well – a big pile of clichés.

So the next time you catch yourself writing, “Let’s take this offline”, try the far more real, “Let’s talk about this later.” And surely there are suitable replacements for the likes of “paradigm shift,” “core competency,” “buy-in,” “synergy,” “state-of-the-art,” and one of my personal pet peeves, “at the end of the day.”

James Spader wouldn’t be caught dead telling his FBI pals to “think outside the box.” He’d just tell them to think.

Write Less. {Really!}

Easy HardThe most important thing I learned at the Gotham Writer’s Workshop was how to write less and tell a better story.

I was an aspiring short story writer. Adam Sexton was a published author and a brilliant teacher. Each week he would review my drafts and, sentence by sentence, strip away every extraneous word.

I’m not going to lie – it was gut wrenching to read his critiques. But I fell in love with the spare, sensual voice that emerged from the space he helped me create. Each image was more evocative, each sentence more powerful.

The lessons Adam taught me twenty-some years ago are just as important today. Especially when it comes to business writing.

“No one reads,” I tell students in my PR Writing Workshop at FIT. “So keep it short and sweet or your message will never get through.”

Every writer knows this is easier said than done. It’s a never-ending challenge to write clear, compelling and compassionate content, using only the most essential words – and not sound like anyone else. Especially when you love words as much as I do.

My report cards from Paoli Pike Elementary School document my penchant for talking too much in class. Friends, family and colleagues will tell you I haven’t changed one bit. Words are my passion – whether I’m telling a story or writing one.

But I digress.

The point is, telling your brand story effectively is about choosing the right words – and using as few of them as possible. There are tons of tips on how to do this, but here are my three current favorites:

It’s not about you. It pains me to say it, but business writing is not about the writer – it’s about the reader. Yes, it’s your vintage jewelry line, your family counseling practice, your financial services team. But your audience needs to hear what you’re saying in order to buy what you’re selling. Before you write a word, put yourself in their shoes.

Keep it real. I don’t mean keep it conversational. As Richard Linklater, director of the movie “Boyhood” said in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “It’s always an insult when people think we improvised. Real talk would be horrible.” What I do mean is use language that’s authentic – less jargon and clichés, more straightforward simplicity. {Ann Handley has some great advice about this in her book, “Everyone Writes.”}

Banish useless words. This Writer’s Circle Facebook post identifies “useless words to erase forever” to improve our writing. It really got me thinking about how I really overuse words like “really.” And “very.” And who knows how many others.

So the girl who still talks too much is turning over a new leaf. Each month I’m going to pick a word to erase from my written vocabulary.

Really!

I think I’ll start with that one.

What’s the Magic Word?

word rocksI’m not sure where I first stumbled across the idea of choosing a word to guide the year. But as the calendar turned to January, I found myself doing it again – this time with surprising focus and dedication.

Why bother, you ask?

My friend Stacey says choosing a word reminds us “to live with intention and purpose.” I second that. Last year my word was “MOVE,” and boy, did I ever! From hiring a personal trainer to rebranding my business, it was a year of perpetual forward motion. For 2015, my word is ”EASE.” And since I could use a bit of a breather, I’m hoping lightening strikes twice.

Are you kidding, you ask? Do you really think a single word can have that much power?

Are you kidding? I’m a writer – of course it can!

Think about how powerful words are. They can make us look witty, sincere, capable, or trustworthy. They also make us sound foolish, cynical, shallow, and dull. Words can make us fall in love and shudder with fear. They can bore us to tears and keep us up half the night

If words can do all that, then a single word can certainly help us stay focused as we move through our day to day. My word grounds me in the story of my life. It shows me what I need – whether I like it or not. And as I (happily!) address the concerns of clients and offer support to friends and family, it gently reminds me to keep my personal intentions front and center.

Ali Edwards, creator of One Little Word®, says her words “have each become a part of my life in one way or another. They’ve helped me to breathe deeper, to see clearer, and to grow.”

What if one word had the power to help your business grow? To enable you to see your product or service with greater clarity and motivate you to not lose sight of your goals and objectives. Just thinking about it makes my heart beat a little faster.

Is there one word that defines your work? Your product? The unique gifts you offer to the world?

What’s that magic word?