By PG Bartlett, SVP of Product Marketing, Acrolinx
You’ve seen the “About” paragraph that every company includes at the end of its press release, right? Perhaps not – perhaps your eyes glaze over when you see them.
No surprise. In the same way your eyes automatically skip over online ads (“banner blindness”), you instinctively recognize “About” paragraphs as useless boilerplate, so you move on.
For those of us who have painstakingly labored over every single word in our own “About” paragraphs, it’s disheartening to know that you couldn’t care less. But let’s face it: the “About” paragraph often represents the worst of business writing because – perversely – it’s corporate-speak taken to the extreme.
You can easily identify corporate-speak by its bland, buzzword-compliant, jargon-filled, boastful language: “best in class,” “cloud-based solution,” “other bloated, boring phrases.” Sadly, miserably, these phrases often form the heart of the “About” paragraph. (And yes, I plead guilty to such word crimes too.)
To be fair, sometimes your audience wants corporate-speak. While customers may avoid “About” paragraphs, potential investors actively seek out companies in hot areas and identify them by buzzwords and jargon.
Nonetheless, everyone in your audience is human enough to respond to human language. One of my favorite examples is the Dollar Shave Club, which I first learned about in a video that went viral. (It’s awesome – go watch it now, but come right back.)
It’s no coincidence that on a recent trip to their website, I searched in vain for their “About” paragraph. But I did find this bit of cleverness (among plenty of other bits):
Of course, everyone doesn’t have the opportunity to inject this much humanity in their content. Most of us write technical content for a living, and our highest priority is to communicate accurately, completely, and unambiguously. Getting “creative” with terminology doesn’t earn us any points – instead, it damages clarity, risks confusion, and raises translation costs. In fact, a technical documentation manager at Cisco recently told me, “Our documentation helps people install million-dollar switches; that’s no time to get cute.”
And therein lies my point: write not only for your audience, but also for their context (e.g., buying vs. using). You can bet that Dollar Shave Club’s warning label (e.g., “keep away from children”) takes its job seriously.
Whether you’re writing light-hearted promotional copy or deadly serious technical instructions, some rules remain universal:
- Know your audience – How knowledgeable and technical are they? You shouldn’t write at a level that’s either above or below their knowledge.
- Know your context – If you’re writing troubleshooting advice, you must take problems seriously because frustrated customers probably don’t want to hear your jokes. Even “how to” advice needs thoughtful consideration; my best advice is to keep your headlines straightforward, even if your body copy is more casual.
- Write briefly – Better to be a copy cutter than a copy creator.
- Axe buzzwords, jargon, and clichés
- Keep it simple – Use short words, active words, and subject-verb-object sentence construction.
- Mind your spelling & grammar
- Keep terminology consistent – You don’t get extra credit for referring to the same thing in different ways, because people less knowledgeable than you might think you’re referring to three different things.
When I talk about the importance of clear, crisp language, someone always asks how to talk to their colleagues about language: “How can I convince them that words are important – and that their words aren’t necessarily the right words?”
Here’s my best advice:
- The voice of the customer is much louder than yours. Don’t allow the argument to become your opinion against theirs. You should gather customer input, which you can easily get thanks to inexpensive or free online surveys.
- Stay away from arguments over grammar. It’s not terrible to recklessly split infinitives, and you don’t want to get pigeonholed as the grammar police.
- Know how far you can push. If you’re working with an idiot from product marketing who wants to inject every buzzword and empty claim in your content, you probably cannot negotiate all the way to perfection.
At a webinar on September 24, I’m going to talk more about some of these subjects. I hope you can join me.
PG Bartlett is the Senior Vice President of Product Marketing at Acrolinx.