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In marketing, sales, PR, and other communication-oriented roles, our jobs revolve around what we have to say. That’s why the old adage, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it,” is so important. If we’re trying to build trust or meaningful business relationships, for example, using cold, generic buzzwords can drain the life and impact from even the most genuine messages. In other scenarios, casual yet cliché phrases can come pre-loaded as pet peeves to certain people, but such semantic snafus aren’t unavoidable or irreparable. There are a few easy sanity checks we can use to ensure the words we choose carry the weight we intend, and even when a word or phrase rubs someone the wrong way, we can still stand behind what we’ve said.

Business Idiom Idiosyncrasies:

We don’t always “have the bandwidth” to think about it, or we may be too busy “killing our numbers” to notice, but outside of the office, business speak can sound pretty weird. If such idioms or phrases carry special meaning to us – like something a valued mentor would say, or a common expression from a friend or family member – these words can still carry weight. Even if you were to get called out on the phrase, your backstory behind why you use it can actually strengthen the connection you’re aiming to establish. On the other hand, though, if you use a generic phrase just to fill space, or because it’s what everyone else is saying, you don’t have much room for redemption if your diction comes into question. Case in Point “Pick Your Brain”

As you can see in this Facebook post from Ted Rubin, a Social Marketing Strategist, Keynote Speaker, and Acting CMO of Brand Innovations, the phrase “pick your brain,” carries an unexpected negative weight due, not only to the overuse of the phrase itself, but also the disproportionate value exchange it denotes. In Ted’s own words, “It’s the expression, and those who take without a thought of giving to others, or appreciating the value they are receiving, that I take issue with.” Clearly, if you had a moment of professional affirmation when a senior colleague asked to “pick your brain” which cemented the phrase as something positive to you, it wouldn’t denote an unappreciative or disproportionate value exchange. In such a case, you could stand behind your choice of words, and your explanation would humanize you all the more.

Communication Clarity:

Do we really, truly, or even literally mean what we’re expressing in the words we choose? In her post on the best worst words, for example, Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer at MarketingProfs, reacts to the word “leverage” saying, “What’s wrong with ‘use’? ‘Influence’? ‘Enhance’? ‘Harness’? Nothing. So use them instead. This word is the poster child of words that began life as nouns and (perplexingly) find themselves used as verbs.” Moreover, the closest existing verb to this verb-ified noun is “pry.” When people use “leverage” are they implying that buyers wedge an offering between their problems and exert substantial force to do the necessary work? Part of the reason “leverage” is so pervasive as a word, though, is because it’s so vague. Many common buzzwords or business idioms like “net-net,” “win-win,” “game changing,” etc. weasel their way into marketing, sales, or other communicative corners of a business when there’s a lack of clarity on what actually needs to be expressed. When the point or value of a message is clear, there’s no need to hide behind buzzwords. Sometimes, simply stating that the value of A is B or that widget X solves for Y is all you really need to say, so why overcomplicate things?

Exaggeration Aggravation:

Even when we have clear value propositions and genuine intentions behind our outreach, though, our words can still fail us if the expectations they set don’t match the reality we’re trying to convey. A prime example is how the word “viral” often gets used to describe simple upticks in awareness or exposure. The expectation for things “going viral” is that word of mouth or social sharing spreads a story or a piece of content at an exponential rate —  much like the outbreak of a virus. When the reality of something that’s been labeled as “viral” is only a slight to moderate increase in awareness or exposure, however, the measurable success in such growth or lift can actually be cheapened by the exaggerated term. Moreover, exaggerated words like “viral” don’t always convey the level of effort inherent to such success, as Michael Reynolds, President and CEO of Spinweb, writes in 5 Terms That Inbound Marketers Hate, “it’s very difficult to simply make a video (or anything else) go viral. Either it happens or it doesn’t.” In poetry, fiction, or other artistic types of writing, exaggeration can be a great way to build intrigue or excite readers, but in business, and marketing in particular, exaggerated terms only aggravate readers who are trying to get a realistic grasp of what’s being conveyed.

Overall, effectiveness in marketing, sales, PR or other communication-related roles comes down to how well we connect with our target audiences. If our words don’t reflect who we are, or the value we have to offer, we’re not going to be successful. Word choice is one small tactic that can make a big difference, but to reach Best-in-Class performance, there’s always more to learn… For more on the best practices of the Best-in-Class in particular, for example, download Aberdeen Group’s free report, 5 Habits of Highly Effective Content Marketers. But if you have any marketing diction do-s and don’t-s of your own, please feel free to add your insights in the comments below.

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