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3 ways terrible writing can kill your business

Updated: Jul 18, 2014 10:14 AM
© iStockphoto / Thinkstock © iStockphoto / Thinkstock

By Jessica Stillman


Bad business language is a popular punching bag. We all love to beat up on overused and annoying jargon and complain about the latest buzzwords (that almost always mean the same thing as a simpler term we all used before the trend hint). But could your company's failures of language tell you something deeper about what's going wrong with the business?

That's the contention of two fascinating recent articles in the Financial Times and Fast Company, both of which look at where companies go wrong with the written word and what annoying communication habits can tell us about deeper troubles at a business. Together the two pieces suggest three types of mistakes.

Corporate Is Killing Creativity

The first problem is outlined by Lucy Kellaway in an FT article documenting the changing nature of Apple's written communications. Back in the day, writes Kellaway, Apple was famous for snappy, easily understandable writing.

She offers a long ago legal document laying out conditions for inclusion in the App Store as an example: "'We will reject apps for any content or behaviour that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, 'I'll know it when I see it. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.'" According to Kellaway "this was clear and funny--and menacing in just the right sort of way."

Compare that with one of the company's recent job ads for a 'Thought Leader,' who can "drive the conceptualisation, evaluation and execution of critical sale reporting projects on time and within business expectations." Kellaway complains that "this offends on many counts. It breaks the rule that there should be no driving of anything without a steering wheel; the trinity of pompous nouns is energy sapping, and as for 'business expectations'--what's wrong with 'budget'?"

All of which is annoying for those who favor clear writing, but Kellaway contends that this slipping into "business gibberish" is actually a more ominous sign for the computer giant. In short, she fears Apple has gone corporate and is losing essential precursors to creativity like clarity of vision.

"Apple's hitherto nice way with words was almost certainly a part of its success. Perhaps the language helped cause the success, or perhaps the success caused the language. The company's new, ugly words suggest it has got too big and too corporate to hang on to the things that once made it different. Apple seems to have become at least as Kafkaesque as everywhere else," she concludes. Muddy writing, in other words, signals muddy thinking and meandering strategy, which inevitable put a severe cramp on innovation.

So You're Saving the World, Are You? 

Linguistic gobbledygook as a signal of lost creativity and vitality is only one way language can betray trouble at a company. Pomposity in regards to your purpose or vision is another. Your company could be winning in the marketplace, asserts a Fast Company article by Ryan Clancy, but when you start talking about grandiose plans to improve the world, there's often trouble ahead.

"You can't define your purpose as 'saving lives' when you go to Davos and define it as delivering shareholder value everywhere else," he writes. "Take Google for example, which once famously proclaimed 'don't be evil' as its guiding principle. Critics have been turning that mantra back on Google ever since, calling the company hypocrites every time their corporate strategies on issues such as labor, privacy, and taxes fall short of perfection."

Getting ahead of yourself when it comes to purpose, not only turns off commentators and potential employees, but also confuses customers, making it harder to understand and communicate what it is you actually do as a company.

You Have No Idea What You're Selling

Smaller companies don't routinely spend their time claiming to fundamentally alter the way the world works for the better, but they have another way of going badly wrong that's often evident in the language they use, according to Clancy. When early-stage startups get pompous, he writes, it's often a sign they have no idea what they're selling or who they're selling it to.

Sure, new businesses can sometimes be as messianic as Google (which is exceptionally irritating) but the real trouble for startups is exaggerating the size or success of the company. "The overselling of more prosaic matters like the potential size of a market or the workings of a technology... typically gets entrepreneurs in trouble," Clancy says.

Entrepreneurs might think this wordy boasting makes them sound impressive, but it generally all it really does is betray a failure to fully understand their business and market. If you really know what you're doing, you should be able to sell you vision simply in five or ten minutes without endless bloviating about 'first mover advantage' and 'breakthrough technologies'.

The original "3 ways terrible writing can kill your business" article can be seen here.

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