Why buzzwords are bad business

Kick the cliché habit

Clichés are the inevitable result of trying to think creatively. 

If I ask my mind to conjure an apt description of a thing, its first instinct is to lurch towards familiar ground – either a cliché or a hackneyed adjective-noun pairing (morbid curiosity, rich tapestry). 

The familiarity of these constructions is what makes them, in the moment of searching, so appealing: they represent the path of least resistance. As an indolent creature the mind is happy to rest on the nearest perch, recoiling from more challenging peaks in the distance.

Orwell, in Politics of  the English Language, puts it like this:

'By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.'

'Leaving your meaning vague' is something to be desperately resisted in content marketing (and just writing generally). Coming up with a good idea means recognizing and discarding the cliché when it appears.

Potato, potato

Buzzwords are just another category of cliché – ‘technical’ terms that become, for a period, ubiquitous. Inevitably, these neologisms decay, become shorn of their trendy patina, and are listed in blog posts with titles like ‘Most annoying buzzwords of 2014’.

If you arrive early to the party then you may avoid the backlash - (at least initially, you never know when someone will find your blog post or newsletter!). If late to the party, then you do little but advertise your ignorance.

Buzzwords will undermine your long-term credibility wherever and however you choose to promote your business, be it blog posts, newsletters or social media. 

If the language you use generates a feeling of scorn, it won’t matter how good your product or service is.

But even if you are an early adopter these terms will still have a dating effect on your writing. Pity the poor poet who first compared his love to a rose; the image was probably striking for a few decades but then lesser artists weighed in and the notion lost any power to evoke. 

Similarly, it’s hard to take seriously an article that includes the phrase ‘blue sky thinking’ – it seems of its time, and brutally so. (The Plain English Campaign’s website has more examples, taken from a 2004 survey; needless to say, these are words and phrases to be avoided in your writing).

Buzzwords and cliches will obscure the vision you are trying to get across. The goal of content marketing, i.e. your efforts to reach out to customers and clients, is to communicate the clearest, most accessible and persuasive description of your product or service.

What do you do that's so different from the competition? The unique and the distinct cannot be successfully described by the ubiquitous and the overused.

What's in a buzzword?

Of course not all neologisms are destined for buzzword status. New coinage is always necessary, because new things are being created that need names.

Predicting the destiny of a new word or phrase is difficult, to say the least. David Crystal, the linguist and author, explains why:

'The reason why linguistic change is so unpredictable is that it is in the hands of so many people. In their minds, rather. And it is as such an unconscious process.'

It’s a gamble to try and predict the whims of a community of speakers within a particular business sector.

The buzzword life cycle

So buzzwords age rapidly, are often ugly constructions, and they date any piece of writing they show up in. Why then are articles written recommending the use of these terms?

Part of the answer to this question must be the influence of SEO on writing. There are many tools that track the popularity of words and phrases and this knowledge creates the temptation to base articles around what is most trendy. 

There is a pressure to act quickly. The internet, as a publishing medium, works to a quicker cycle than print. Fashions change rapidly. 

The life cycle of the buzzword, like the mayfly, is very brief: a few weeks may separate recommendation from condemnation. 

But for some, content is disposable: blogs and articles are created to cash-in and are then quickly discarded, once ranking targets are met. These graveyards of junk terms lie in wait, to be stumbled upon by unsuspecting searchers who might think them relevant or useful.

The internet provides an incredible platform for new coinages to propagate. If you are the genesis of a term that becomes popular then accreditation may take the form of links to you or your website – increasing your traffic and importance. 

The human and robot audience

The internet, it has to be said, is sometimes an enemy to language and communication. At its worst the appeal to buzzwords and keywords can butcher the readability of a piece of writing and suggest an irresolvable conflict between the two audiences being addressed – one human, one algorithmic. 

The incredible utility of language rests in its capacity to transfer an idea from one noggin to another – without this shared sense of noise and scribble, progress in technological and moral realms would be unthinkable. 

But in the internet age, the utility of language also rests in its ability to attract the great eye of Google and the advertising dollars that follow – hence the worst excess of keyword stuffed blogs and other black-hat SEO techniques (though Google attempts to weaken these strategies with every update).

Can anything be done? Orwell, unlike Crystal, has confidence in the influence of individuals on the direction of language: ‘Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority’. 

Given the ignominious fate of most buzzwords, this confidence seems well-placed. 

A necessary evil

Buzzwords might just be a negative aspect of a necessary process: the coining of new words to describe new things. New words that are actually useful enter the lexicon with regularity – vapid marketing speak which generally describes nothing new and never with any precision will fall away.

What does this mean for a business or brand? Meeting the challenge of communicating to customers or even employees in a way that won’t be embarrassing in a few months time is a matter of thinking carefully about, across every channel of contact, the language of your brand. The route to customer trust and retention won’t lie in using whatever buzzword is in fashion. 

Image courtesy of Ken Lund, Flickr
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