How to breathe fresh life into trite corporate copy

Just as Big Brother used ‘Newspeak’ to diminish expressive language in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ companies today seem stuck on stilted speech. Here’s how to write livelier prose.

How to write better copy

When’s the last time you tucked into “Nineteen Eighty-Four?”

If you’ve read George Orwell’s dystopian classic, you probably remember Newspeak: the state-mandated language in which, for example, nothing is “bad” but rather “ungood” (or “doubleplusungood” in extreme cases).

The purpose of Newspeak is to shrink the English vocabulary and deliberately make the language less expressive. As words vanish, so does the public’s capacity to think.

As Syme, a brainwashed character in Orwell’s masterpiece, says: “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?”

This got me thinking about the language used by companies, charities and other organizations. The homogeneity, the jargon, the shrinking range of word choices—and ideas.

In the Newspeak of today, companies are forever “providing solutions.” Organizations are “passionate about X” or “inspired by Y.” There is always a “commitment to quality” or an obligatory “driven by excellence.” Of course, charities must be “changing lives” or “making a difference.” It’s crucial to “have an impact,” and it must be noted that this is “all thanks to the kind support of people like you.”

For us as readers, these trite phrases (and hundreds like them) have become white noise. They’re safe, but they communicate nothing of significance. They are destined to be ignored.

One hospice charity was looking to improve its communications. Given the charity’s website and fundraising materials, it was clear that the organization did wonderful work. However, its communications were abstract, sanitized and bland. Care for the dying is a highly emotive topic, yet here was this sea of safe, boring word choices.

Don’t talk about “life-limiting illness;” talk about dying. Instead of mindlessly typing “enhanced quality of life,” talk about holding people’s hands. Vividly describe flowers, caregivers and pillows. Rather than saying you “offer support to families and loved ones,” make people see what that looks like. Make people feel what it feels like.

How to break out of corporate Newspeak

If your company is in a Newspeak communications rut, how can you bust out? Try this exercise:

  1. Gather your colleagues around a table.
  2. Each person should list his or her favorite words. Pick tongue-ticklers that are fun to say, such as “truculent,” “pizzazz,” “plonk” or “archangel.”
  3. Choose one from your list and write it, along with a short definition, at the top of a new sheet of paper.
  4. Pass this paper to the person on your right, and take the one from the person on your left.
  5. Using this word and definition as a first sentence, write a piece of communication—such as a sales letter, a radio ad or a job posting—for your business.

This fifth step might cause agitation or confusion. Push through that. Just start writing, and see where you end up. Chances are that much of what you write will be a bit bonkers, but you may be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it will snap you out of your safe, familiar, usual writing pattern. You’ll smash through the Newspeak barriers that have been hemming in your communications.

However you go about it, find ways to stir creativity. Knock yourself off balance occasionally. Rearrange your writing process. Jot down jarring or unusual words that may grab eyeballs.

If you hold language at arm’s length, as if with a pair of tweezers, your readers will feel that distance—and they’ll hold you at arm’s length, too.

However, if you can find surprising and engaging ways to hook readers, they’ll keep reading what you have to say. Remember, creativity is Big Brother’s worst nightmare.

A version of this post first appeared on Write Like a Human Being.

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