10 corporate writing crimes

If you’ve worked in the corporate communications world for very long, you’ve definitely seen, or perhaps committed, these transgressions.

Corporate communicators with years in the trenches are all too familiar with seeing writing transgressions every day.

Some we commit; some we correct.

Here’s a sampling of the worst crimes:

1. Writing for your boss rather than your audience.

In corporate communications, “writing for your audience” often takes a back seat to politics and the whims of executives. Be honest: Is that ad copy for prospects or for your CEO? Is that press release for reporters or for your board of directors?

In a corporate environment, it can be tough to remember that the audience is the “end user” of what you’ve written. Whether it’s a press release, a feature article, or a blog post, begin with your audience in mind.

2. Random capitalization.

Definitive capitalization rules have existed for centuries, so why aren’t they followed in corporate communications? Random capitalization is everywhere. Capitalizing a word when it should not be does not make it more important.

Remember to capitalize proper nouns: the names of specific, unique people, places, organizations, and sometimes things. Capitalize titles that appear before names, but not after names.

3. Using complex words instead of simple words.

The use of unfamiliar or complex terms interferes with comprehension and slows readers down. Readers may even skip terms they don’t understand, hoping to find the meaning in the rest of the sentence. (Consider “carry out” instead of “implement”; “improve” instead of “ameliorate.”)

4. Using “corporate” verbs.

A common problem with corporate writing is that it’s full of lazy, meaningless verbs. Words such as “utilize,” “implement,” “leverage,” and “disseminate” jumble writing and weaken messages. Choose clear, active verbs instead of throwaway ones. (Consider “send” instead of disseminate.”)

5. Skipping the “why.”

Good communicators know the importance of “starting with the why.” Whether you’re telling customers about a price increase, employees about changes in company policy or encouraging people to stop texting while driving, leading with the “why” helps everyone understand the purpose of your message up front.

Example: “Due to recent security concerns, all employees will now be required to wear their name badges while in the building.”

6. Including too many adjectives.

The use of indirect and unclear descriptors can cause readers to ignore or misinterpret your message. The same goes for adjectives that have lost their meaning through overuse or misuse, such as “unique,” “amazing,” “revolutionary.” Eliminate unnecessary modifiers, such as “really” and “very.”

Descriptors should be precise. (Consider “overwrought” instead of “stressed.”)

7. Burying the lede.

In journalism school, we called the failure to mention the most important, interesting, or attention-grabbing elements of a story in the first paragraph “burying the lede.”

In corporate communications, “burying the lede” refers to the failure to mention the most important or actionable items at the beginning of your message.

Get to the point in the first few words. Don’t expect readers to read a long introductory paragraph, with the “what” and “why” buried at the end.

8. Failing to define acronyms.

Unless an acronym is universally recognized by your audience, spell out the acronym on first reference. The acronym then follows in parenthesis and can be used throughout the text.

Acronyms that some consider universally known may be obscure to others. If your content requires the use of several unfamiliar acronyms, consider including a list of acronyms as a sidebar. For Web content, link acronyms to their definitions.

9. Mangling metaphors.

When used correctly, similes and metaphors help paint pictures with words, adding depth to messages. (“That meeting was painful, like a long walk in tight shoes.”)

When used incorrectly, the meaning is lost. Mixed metaphors make completely unrelated comparisons and are generally considered bad form. (“I can read him like the back of my book.”) Inappropriate analogies convey the wrong mental image. (“It sticks out like a sore throat.”)

10. Failing to consider context.

As you write for your audience, consider when and under what circumstances people will be reading your content. Will it be on a cell phone while waiting to check out at a store? Will it be at the end of a long day? Will it be among the other stacks of publications they have to read? Will they read what you’ve written if it’s too wordy or uses overly technical language?

Ragan readers, care to share any other corporate writing crimes?

Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer and editor from Austin, Texas. Read more from her at www.impertinentremarks.com.


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