Trying to sound ‘professional’ has led to an entirely unnatural, insincere and ineffective writing style we’ll call Businesspeak. Also unlovingly referred to as ‘corporate waffle’ or plain old jargon. You know the kind of thing:
“At blah.com our team are passionate about our range of innovative dual-component nutrition delivery tools”
“Oh, you sell knives and forks then?”
George Orwell looked at this phenomenon by translating Ecclesiastes 9:11 from the King James version of the Bible into Businesspeak. Now, considering it was first published in 1611, allow me to put this into modern English without butchering it too much:
The race doesn’t always go to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, bread to the wise, riches to clever people nor good things to skilled people; time and chance happen to all of them.
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Which one is more effective? Which one gets its message across? Which is easier to read, more memorable and more engaging? Which one would you prefer to read?
Who is responsible for this constriction of free-flowing natural speech? Who sees the clear expression of ideas, emotion and individuality in English not as the language’s most powerful asset, but as something to be eradicated?
The truly Orwellian bit is that the wardens of this word-prison are in your mind. No copywriter, wordsmith or marketeer would use Businesspeak. Set yourself free.
Businesspeak fails you
Businesspeak fails on all counts. Far from sounding professional, you will only sound cold, distant and uncaring; you will talk at people not to them. That’s if the reader can even understand what you’re saying.
You will fail to engage potential customers and won’t stand out from your competitors.
The professional thing to do is speak clearly in your own voice. Communicate effectively and remember that it’s not a business that reads what you write — it’s a person. A busy person with a limited attention span, with hopes, fears and wants (including, but not only, business wants).
Dare to break the ‘rules’
The Businesspeak myth has spawned many ‘rules’ that are at best nothing more than bars between you and your audience and at worse simply wrong and will hinder you communicating effectively.
Orwell, in his Politics and the English Language, wrote these 6 rules:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
They are great copywriting guidelines to combat Businesspeak, but to blindly follow and take them to extremes means stripping the power of the English language from your words. Remember, this was about trying to get politicians to speak clearly and even then Orwell put the 6th clause in.
Write for humans
Remember, you’re writing emails to get your message across. You're writing for people and we are emotional creatures; our decisions are shaped by far more than logic — we form opinions and have gut feelings.