From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. instead of 7:30.”
~anonymous high school essay
Greetings. Thank you for indulging me in yet another example of analogies collected by high school English teachers. I do so because the language we all share is a treasure chest of words that in the odd combination can make us smile, chuckle, even laugh out loud. And, like Larry the Cat — whose house we share and whose antics are just plain goofy — the best humor is unintentional humor.
Anyway, the gaffe above resulted from a sincere, albeit immature, effort to be original and evocative. Good for him or her, I say. At least the brain has been engaged. But what about the way us adults fall into shallow “copycatism” when we communicate in a professional setting? And how does that reflect on you and your business communications when you mindlessly insert those phrases in your website text or emails? Do you really want to sound like a faceless, unimaginative bureaucrat when it comes to writing skills?
Herewith some inaugural entries in my Language Hall of Shame:
o Negatively impact, as in “Our failure to fabricate even one paper clip that actually holds two sheets of paper together is negatively impacting our sales performance.” First of all, “impact” became a verb only about 30 years ago, even though the verbs “affect” or “influence” did the job quite nicely. But now that it’s here, why compound the damage by adding an awkward adverb (fellow Mainer Stephen King said in his book on writing, “The adverb is not your friend.”)? Why not rely instead on unambiguous, active, space-saving standbys such as “harm” or “hurt?”
o Core competencies, as in “Our core competencies include a flexible attitude about quality control and a collective tendency to stretch the lunch hour beyond normal parameters because we adhere to the principle of saving personal energy.” Does anyone realize that by using the adjective “core” to define “competencies,” you’re implying that you have other “competencies” that might not be so “core?” And that a careful reader could deduce that those other competencies might actually be subpar, or least rather pedestrian? Here’s a solution, in plain English: “What we do best is…” or “Our reputation rests on the way we…” or “We are known for…”
I bring this up because I don’t doubt that your readers are critical thinkers (at least that’s what I tell my writing seminar students to expect), which means they will view phrases like “core competencies” as lazy, unproductive thinking.
o Skill sets, as in “Our employees can bring the most unique set of skill sets to finding a solution to your problem, which is why we consider ourselves a high-end firm that can justify overcharging you for our services.” First of all, you can’t be “most unique” because “unique” means one of a kind. I used to think that foolishness was restricted to the sports broadcast booth, but now I’m seeing it on websites, which was probably inevitable.
Anyway, I ask you: What’s wrong with just using “skills?” How can adding “sets” possibly add anything beyond the useless appendage of another four-letter word? If you use “skills sets,” ask yourself: “Why? What have I gained beyond the obvious tendency to imitate others unthinkingly?”
The News Media…Not Always Nosy Busybodies
“Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once.”
— Cyril Connolly, English writer
Learning to deal with the press constructively need not be limited to traditional definitions of news. Some realistic role-playing in a media training setting can, in fact, help you frame and sharpen your message for commercial purposes. That’s where I can be of assistance. As a former newspaper and magazine reporter, I like to know how things work and what sets them apart. Then I try to pass on what I’ve learned in succinct prose, as Connolly noted.
Let me describe the sort of training I do. A couple years ago, a clever nurse in Maine came up with a blend of four aromatic oils that she said eased the nausea of first-trimester pregnancy, chemotherapy and motion sickness. To help with marketing, I put her through questions a reporter for the business section of a newspaper or magazine might ask. Then I wrote an article about her “aromatherapy,” which we discussed in detail for lessons learned.
The result? She and her marketing and investment associates came out of the exercise with a much clearer view of how the public would perceive their unusual product. The questions I asked were born of healthy skepticism, and she said she planned to adjust her pitch accordingly.
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