Hey B-to-B Marketers: Lighten Up with the Business-Speak

Brands Need to Take a Page Out of the Dictionary and Speak Plain English

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I was having coffee with one of my clients last week when the Oxford English Dictionary's latest lineup of new words came up.

"I can't believe they've included YOLO (you only live once)," she said. "What's the world coming to?"

Language evolves, I told her. It's a good thing.

Unfortunately, the business world -- and in particular, the business-to-business world -- seems to disagree in the name of "professionalism." And even if marketers get it, they're failing to educate their clients on why customer-friendly language is crucial to their success.

I'm not saying that investment banks should be "humblebragging" about their achievements in their annual reports, or that auditing firms should pepper their websites with words like "amazeballs" or "hot-diggity." But there does seem to be a dogged insistence in business that formal, stuffy language is somehow more professional than the more natural, more readable, more conversational alternative.

This old-school thinking is rife even in new-school businesses like tech companies and management consultancies. The irony is that many of those companies go around claiming to be forward-thinking -- and yet their language is often medieval. Quite literally, as much of the dullness of corporate writing is down to a conscious decision to choose formal words -- often of Latin origin -- over their more conversational, Germanic synonyms. And so you'll find businesses talking about selection, purchase, provision and execution when normal people just choose, buy, give and do.

With content marketing and social media demanding a more natural voice from brands, anyone who clings to their old language is going to get left behind.

Marketers hold the key because they're the link between clients and the outside world. They are their client's mouthpiece, so it's their responsibility to make sure they use language their customers can understand.

Unfortunately marketers have exacerbated the problem instead of solving it by developing their own marketing-speak that's as alienating to normal people as corporate-speak (I'm guessing your Labor Day BBQ chitchat with family and friends won't include talk of synergies, value add, masstige and brand activation).

Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco dedicated two recent articles to the topic, highlighting his most-hated marketing buzzwords. And there are many, many more that could've gone on his list.

The first step is to clean up your own language. That means getting back in touch with normal-speak -- the kind you used before you were a marketer, when people came up with ideas instead of ideating. Listen to yourself. Read your writing out loud. Read it to a friend, your kid, your favorite aunt. If they don't get it, change it.

Then do the same for your clients.

Warren Buffett gets it. In his preface to the Security and Exchange Commission's "A Plain English Handbook," he gives this "unoriginal but useful" (his words, not mine) advice:

"Write with a specific person in mind. When writing Berkshire Hathaway's annual report, I pretend that I'm talking to my sisters. I have no trouble picturing them: Though highly intelligent, they are not experts in accounting or finance."

But the problem isn't vocabulary alone.

People seem terrified to let go of those so-called rules that govern business writing. Yes, you can refer to a company as "we." No, contractions aren't unprofessional. And while we're at it, yes, you can start a sentence with "and" -- the argument to the contrary being a ludicrously persistent myth that almost every authority on the English language, including the Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, has dispelled. Still in doubt? Flip open your nearest Bible to Genesis 1, where a whopping 32 of the first 34 sentences start with, yup, you've guessed it -- "and."

All of these things lead to more conversational and effective writing. Which is crucial, because most of us are more likely to trust someone we're having a good conversation with than a formal, faceless corporation. And the more formal and faceless your or your client's business, the less likely it is to survive.

Marketers, it's time to take action. Let's evolve the language of business and marketing once and for all.

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