Ping! A copywriting brief arrives in my inbox. Please, could I write a series of insightful blog posts for an international company? Of course! This is just the sort of thing I love to do. As a copywriter, I’m schooled in the value of clarity. I believe in using plain English rather than hiding behind unnecessarily complex language.
The company’s website, however, is a textbook example of the opposite — as are the briefs for each of the blog posts. They are full of business buzzwords and impenetrable phrases. The simplest concepts are hidden in run-on sentences and multi-syllable words.
I am presented with a dilemma: Should I emulate the tone of the company so my words sounded like they’re coming from someone who works there? After all, that’s the other main job of a copywriter — to write in different tones of voice so the work fits seamlessly into a company’s brand. Or, should I stick to my principles and write the blogs in plain English? I’ll come back to this question later on.
The brief opens up an even bigger question for me. The language I encounter in this project is far from rare. We all know people who speak like this; we may even speak like this ourselves. It’s a way of talking we don’t often choose when having conversations with friends. So why do so many of us choose to talk like this when we’re at work?
I decided to investigate why people hide behind buzzwords.
We’ve all heard people using specialty words or just too many words when a thing could be said more directly. This tweet gets right at it:
The Plain English Campaign’s website is also full of real-world jargony examples that could be simplified:
Before: If there are any points on which you require explanation or further particulars we shall be glad to furnish such additional details as may be required by telephone.
After: If you have any questions, please phone.
It is important, though, to differentiate business buzzwords from legitimate technical language, which has its place in writing. Copywriter Bob Bly explains it well in his advice on copywriters adopting jargon: “‘Operating system’ is a technical term, as is ‘broadband network.’ We should use them. They are familiar to our readers. And to avoid them would require substituting lengthy and unnecessary descriptions.” Technical terms are valuable.
The sort of language we’re talking about, however, Bly describes as “unnecessarily complex — more so than the idea it is meant to convey.” He demonstrates the difference in this anecdote:
Years ago, in a brochure describing a material handling system, I wrote that the equipment dumped the material from a storage silo into a bin. The product manager crossed out “dumped” and changed it to “gravimetrically conveyed.” When his boss read this, he asked, puzzled, “What’s a gravimetric conveyor?”
The absurdity probably seems obvious when called out like that, but let’s ask ourselves why we reach for such fancy words. Why did the company I was writing for feel the need to include so many buzzwords on their website and briefs? Why did Bly’s product manager feel he had to replace “dumped”?
One possible explanation is insecurity. Writer David Graeber claims that a lot of working people have — apologies for the language — “bullshit jobs” and carry out what they consider to be meaningless work. He argues that technology was supposed to have automated a lot of work, freeing us up to work fewer hours. But while automation has removed many tasks, we’re all still working as many — if not more — hours than before, often in industries with less obvious value.
As Graeber told the Guardian:
A world without teachers or dock-workers would soon be in trouble. But it’s not entirely clear how humanity would suffer were all private equity CEOs, lobbyists, PR researchers, actuaries, telemarketers, bailiffs or legal consultants to similarly vanish.
It seems that many people agree with this sense that the work they do has no value. In 2015, YouGov tested Graeber’s ideas and found that in the U.S., 24 percent of people polled felt their job didn’t make a meaningful contribution to the world. Another YouGov survey found that 37 percent of British workers thought their jobs were meaningless, and the same poll for the Netherlands showed 40 percent of Dutch workers felt the same.
We're irritated when we decipher a particularly annoying piece of jargon and realize it means something very simple and obvious.
And how do people working in jobs they feel are worthless give themselves a greater sense of worth and purpose? Well, they turn to jargon. A 2017 survey by American Express Open found that 64 percent of office workers say they use jargon words or phrases multiple times a week. For Andre Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School, this “boom” in jargon is entirely expected because people have moved from producing goods and services to making things look good, an “economy of persuasion.” In his article on the subject, “Shooting the Shit,” he writes:
Bullshit is particularly prevalent in immaterial roles that lack a clear sense of social purpose. In these contexts, employees try to occupy themselves by engaging in bullshit. They do this by circulating discourses which are strategically ambiguous, over-packed with information and deliberately fleeting in nature.
All of this chimed very clearly with me in the context of writing blogs for the company. The company’s sector was a textbook definition of meaningless. Accordingly, meaningless buzzwords had sprung up around it.
We might use business-speak when we feel less than positive about the work we are doing, but that doesn’t mean we like it. Neither does it mean we understand it.
A 2013 survey by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that almost a quarter of U.K. workers considered corporate jargon a pointless irritation. A 2018 survey by OnePoll and Jive Communications said 27 percent of U.S. workers stop listening when people start using it. That survey also found that about six in 10 people don’t know what the buzzwords their co-workers use mean. And, interestingly, the 2017 survey by American Express Open found that 88 percent of people just pretend to understand office jargon while having no idea what it means.
On that point, buzzwords might just be a thing we do — or pretend to do — in order to get along. Kate Cooper, head of research, policy, and standards at the Institute of Leadership and Management, says language like this is often shorthand for communicating that we’re part of the same group. “When you’re among a team of professionals and everyone understands the use of abbreviations and specific terms,” she explains, “there’s something quite social and comforting about it — so it certainly has benefits.”
Of course, the opposite is also true. When we don’t understand the language but feel like we should, we don’t say anything for fear of revealing that we are not insiders.
It would be easy to dismiss the use of business-speak as a fact of modern office life, but some people argue it has serious consequences. Chrissie Mahler, founder of the Plain English Campaign, has called management-speak “downright dangerous” and criticized it of “acting as a barrier to procuring new business.”
Spicer, in his writing, seems to reach farther to say that “bullshit” can appear to have positive effects. It might increase the perceived legitimacy and confidence of a company. But the consequences, he says, are dark:
Valued occupational identities are compromised and stakeholder trust is undermined. Ultimately, bullshit leaves us with organisations that may be appealing on the surface but are distinctly brittle.
On a psychological level, business-speak can run counter to our cognitive fluency — how easily we can understand things. We’re conditioned to prefer things that are easy to think about. It’s why we’re irritated when we decipher a particularly annoying piece of jargon and realize it means something very simple and obvious. “Jargon never impresses those trying to decipher it,” warns Lee Monks, a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign.
So, all this unnecessary business-speak not only can lead to a lack of trust among colleagues and exclude those who aren’t in the know — possibly even excluding an organization’s customers — it creates a psychological barrier of comprehension. Consider that one in seven adults in England have literacy levels at or below those expected of a nine- to 11-year-old. In the United States, the latest national education data shows 43 percent of the population has a basic or below basic level of understanding prose. Using pointlessly complex language creates problems inside an organization and also when that language creeps into communication with the outside world.
There is no shortage of guidelines about writing more clearly. George Orwell’s rules for writing are often cited, with maybe the most helpful being “never use a long word where a short one will do” and “if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.”
More recently, Content Design London led a project to develop inclusive, universal style guidance. Its top findings include the usual readability best practices — “using plain, simple language, short sentences, active tense, good grammar and accurate punctuation” — as well as advice to avoid random capitalization, abbreviations, and acronyms unless they’re very common.
The Plain English Campaign says that plain English is “a message, written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice, that is clear and concise.” The group even has a downloadable guide called “How to Write in Plain English.” Being thoughtful about the person you’re speaking to is all-around solid advice, and when it comes to jargon, copywriter Belinda Weaver sagely offers up the three golden rules of copywriting — all three of which are “Know your audience.” If you don’t reach outside a company’s internal corporatese, warns Ashley Deibert of iQ Media and the Forbes Communication Council, you can “easily alienate readers, even though the marketer may think they are getting it right by writing what they know to be true.”
Going back to Bly, he makes perhaps the best point of all:
If you have to make a choice between making your copy too simple or too sophisticated, err on the side of making it too simple. Reason: In my nearly 30 years of writing business-to-business copy aimed at engineers, scientists, programmers, and other techies, I have never once heard a prospect complain, “This brochure is too easy to read.”
These guideline snippets are all valuable. There is no arguing with them. Most people would agree with the principles. Many companies have guides encouraging workers to express themselves clearly and plainly.
Yet the problem still exists. In 2014, the U.K. government began using mandatory guidelines for writing and managing content. In particular, that meant using plain English. But research in 2016 concluded that 92 percent of the country’s government agency websites didn’t meet readability standards.
So, why do we continue to speak in business-speak? To me, it goes back to the reason we use it in the first place: a lack of a sense of worth about our jobs. Think back to the “gravimetrically conveyed” anecdote. The employee, presumably feeling their job lacked worth, felt the need to use fancy language. The boss, with much more authority and presumably a greater sense of worth, had no issue using the simpler language.
In the briefs for the blogs I was asked to write, I noticed the same phenomenon. The more junior the member of staff, the more buzzword-filled their language was; the higher up the person, the more “real” their language. You’ve almost certainly experienced this in your own world.
Interestingly, this only highlights the problem with buzzwords. A low-level employee who speaks plainly in a company steeped in jargon may stick out as a lone voice. A freelance copywriter who writes a blog that is out of tune with the company’s prevailing style is likely to go hungry because they’ll never be hired again after failing to meet the brief.
I’m not sure there is an easy answer. My heart says it’s important to take a stand, to write clearly, and avoid gibberish. My head says you can only fight the good fight when you’ve got people on your side.
As a freelancer, you can educate your clients in the value of clarity and concision. You can embrace those willing to make a change. And for the others? It’s your decision whether you work with them or not. In the example that led me to this investigation, I did as I was asked. I wrote blogs that used jargon.
As an employee, you should pick your battles. Use business buzzwords when others are using them, but be aware when it’s preventing understanding. And when you rise up the corporate ladder, be the person who gives their team a sense of worth so they have the confidence to use plain English.