PR pros: Ban these terms from your writing!

From key and holistic to solution and proprietary, these words are way beyond their expiration date.


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I am a copywriter by trade and like all copywriters I started out as an idealistic purveyor of my craft, ready to change the world one B2B case study at a time. I would, I thought, single-handedly bring an end to the use of empty, meaningless jargon in PR and communications, leading to a new dawn of simple, honest and inspiring prose.

Many years later I’m as enmeshed in the jargon as anyone else, justifying my capitulation by arguing that what can seem like jargon one year can quickly turn into accepted phraseology 12 months later.

And this is true; there is a lot of jargon that can just be classified as “just the way people in the industry speak” and is about as eradicable as mold or dental plaque. Having said that, there are some words and phrases that are so ingrained and yet so dull that I feel that something must be done. Getting rid of them won’t necessarily help improve standards of writing, but it will help make me happy, and that is what the world is here for after all.

Here are my top words and phrases that we should ban:

1. Key (when used to mean important, pivotal or fundamental)

Key is ubiquitous across all of PR. My objection is that it’s mostly used to make an ordinary sentence sound more precise or more authoritative and, in doing so, actively disguises the true meaning of the sentence (if there is one). When people put “key” in front of a words such as “stakeholder” or “message,” it’s there to make it sound like they have a grip on the important stakeholders/messages without actually saying who or what they are. In fact, by using the word they are disguising the fact they can’t or won’t say what those “key” stakeholders or messages are. Name them, if you dare. Here’s a tip: if the phrase sounds too imprecise and unscientific without the word “key,” then it’s probably pretty meaningless.

2. In the current economic climate (and variations)

This phrase gives a sheen of economic know-how to a generic article (the author hopes). It is estimated that there have been 10 billion articles beginning with the words “in the current economic climate” since the recession began, with around 99 percent of those explaining how to “get ahead” during a slowdown. Only 1 percent of the authors had any serious clue what the economic climate was at the time. Other variations in the genre include “in today’s fast-paced business world.”

3. Holistic

This word should have been laughed into oblivion by now and it is, I think, less common than it used to be. But it is still out there. When people use holistic, they mean something “takes a lot of stuff into consideration.” For example, a holistic health practitioner might take into account the patient’s state of mind, zodiac sign and pet preference as well as their physical symptoms. A “360-degree, holistic solution” might, oh God, who knows? Say what you mean.

4. Innovation

I don’t want to get rid of this word altogether, just carefully monitor its use. In the past, when it wasn’t used by every company that had an incremental product refresh cycle, it was quite a powerful word, linked with Victorian inventors in stovepipe hats and smart engineers working for NASA. Now it is so abused it has come to mean “didn’t exist in the world until now,” which is true of a lot of ordinary things such as sandwiches and cups of tea, but you wouldn’t call those innovative, would you?

5. Strategic

Again, I don’t want to get rid of this word altogether, just limit its use. In certain contexts, the word strategic can be fun and sexy, for example “strategic missile command,” “strategic troops,” “strategic thermonuclear heat death.” Outside of war, however, the word strategic is just another corporate-speak piece of nonsense.

6. Revolutionary

Adjectives are in short supply at communications’ agencies. What do you call version 9.1 of a product when “new” won’t do? The thing about revolutionary is that “revolution” describes a process or effect rather than a state of being. Ergo, a new, untried product cannot be revolutionary, although somewhere down the line it might be said to have been revolutionary, but to be honest, it’s unlikely.

7. Enabling
It is difficult to avoid using the word “enabling” when writing copy about products or services. You’re trying to sell a product or service, after all. It would be an interesting exercise to find out how many “enablings” a journalist reads in one day.

Sometimes, for variation, I use “allows you to” or “helps you to,” but these are equally as sappy. The solution is to go about the problem a different way. Instead of: “The xxx phone enables you to send video messages,” you could try “video messaging is fast on the xxx phone” or something a bit more descriptive such as that.

8. Enhancing/maximizing/optimizing

These grate because of overuse, generally in copy related to technology products. They are really boring words, especially when repeated numerous times over the course of an article, press release or white paper. They also sound a bit robotic.

9. Solution

The magazine Private Eye has a section dedicated to misuse of this word but we still use it. The problem is that some solutions simply have no other word to describe them apart from “solution.” What do you use to describe a product that includes software, hardware and management consultancy? It’s a bleeding solution. What can be done? You can use product, offering, package or service. They’re not perfect, but they’re better than “solution.”

10. Proprietary

“Proprietary” and “bespoke” go together, and often with “solution.” There is a place for them. Software is often “bespoke” and “proprietary” and that’s OK, because those are the technical words for software that’s been created for a particular business or application.

When these words creep outside the world of software there is a problem, because they rust up copy due to their technical associations. I’ve been trying to do away with “proprietary” for a while. My solution is to use “exclusive” or “xxx-developed.” Anyone have a better suggestion?

Caroline Gilmour is a PR and marketing copywriter. She blogs at Some Light Drizzle, where this article originally ran.

Topics: PR

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