How to keep your writing out of Beer 'n' Bullshit Corner

I had a lovely working-ish holiday in Sydney back in January. The sun shone, the food bust my wallet as well as my waistline, and I saw lots of great writing.

Like this solar-powered bin in Bondi Junction. In just 20 words, it says what it does and why – and conjures up images of beer bellies to boot.

Or this sign in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. Its wordplay and snappy descriptions quickly explain what you’re looking at (palms). So you can get straight back to looking at them.

Admittedly, this sign in a bank window could double as a Tinder bio. But it uses direct, natural language. And it just about manages to avoid being twee.

Then there’s this brilliant bit of call-a-spade-a-spade naming, by a surfing shop in North Bondi.

And, my personal favourite, this sign in a pub on Cleveland Street.

To me, these examples embody the characteristics I associate with Aussies: they’re friendly and straight-talking, with a good dollop of wry humour. In fact, I saw so many examples while I was down under that I started to wonder if there was such a thing as a national tone of voice. And if so, whether the Australian one could be the best in the world. (They’d like that.)

.... but not everyone’s doing it

Then I spoke to a friend who’s working for a consultancy firm over there. And she said that while the company’s internal communication sounds like a human being wrote it, the stuff it produces for clients is much more formal, and full of jargon and buzzwords.

In other words, it’s like a lot of content from a lot of similar firms, all around the world.

This is a darn shame, and not just for the obvious reasons: that it’s a missed opportunity to stand out by writing with some personality. Or that jargon, buzzwords and formal language make things much harder – and less engaging – to read.

It’s a shame because the more like this you write, the more abstract you sound. And according to a 2010 study, using abstract language makes people more likely to think you’re lying. Which, when your business is about trust and relationships, is not the impact you want.

So if you want people to trust your brand, ask yourself if your writing belongs in Beer ‘n’ Bullshit corner. That means seeing if you’ve:

  • gone overboard on jargon. Every industry has its own language, which the people in it understand. And to a certain extent, your clients and customers understand it too. But just because your clients in HR know what ‘poor learning transfer’ means doesn’t mean you should use it on every second line. If you replace jargon with a more tangible alternative (‘People only use around 20% of what they’ve learnt in training’), you’ll paint a much clearer picture.

  • thrown in lots of business buzzwords. These are rife, and can sound as if you’re trying to hide something. Try to say things straight instead. So ‘Our leverage of human capital facilitates superior performance’ becomes ‘We get great results because we have great people’. And ‘These behaviours are culturally normative’ becomes ‘It’s just the way we do things at XX’.

  • opted for formal instead of normal. That means using long, fancy words where short, simple ones would do: ‘utilise’ instead of ‘use’, ‘assist’ instead of ‘help’ or ‘accelerate’ instead of ‘speed up’. Using the passive voice is another example (‘The program was facilitated by’ instead of ‘We ran the program’). As is going nuts for nouns (‘Clarity around program accountabilities’ instead of ‘You’ll know who’s responsible for what on the program.’)

These common pitfalls can all cloud what you’re trying to say, and leave the reader wondering if you’re being deliberately unclear. Making claims without backing them up will only add to the effect.

So instead of saying you’re a ‘market-leading provider of tax solutions’, say, ‘Last year, we helped XX clients to save £XX on their tax bill’. Or even better, tell a story about how you’ve helped a real client solve a real tax problem. You’ll bring your work to life for readers – and they’ll be more likely to believe you.

Seen any great examples of writing on your travels, or got any other tips for making your writing more concrete? Post them here or tweet me @copybyclaire

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