In Praise of Simple Language

Few things get in the way of good communication more than bureaucratic language. Overly complex terms make it hard for readers to understand what you’re trying to say (besides being as annoying as hell). And that means people are less likely to take the action you want them to.

It’s not a matter of dumbing down the message, but rather of speaking more clearly. Sticking with simple words and phrases increases the odds you’ll strike a chord with your audience.

Here at Firewood we often write about technology topics for our clients, which means we have to be on guard to steer clear of jargon. It’s easy to lose readers in the weeds by going into too much detail using technical lingo.

Every day we run across terms that muddle more than they clarify. Here are our current top-five pet peeves, along with some alternatives:

Operationalize

  • What it means: to put into operation or use.
  • Why to avoid: It’s an overly complex word that weighs down any headline or sentence it appears in. This granddaddy of bureaucratese first made its debut in 1952. Over the years it has escaped the confines of disciplines such as psychology—where it has a specific meaning—to blot the B2B copy landscape.
  • What we recommend: “Start using,” “launch,” and even “implement” will serve you better.

Performant

  • What it means: high performing.
  • Why to avoid: It’s a vague term that fails to adequately describe the benefit it’s attempting to convey. Although there’s still some debateabout whether “performant” is actually a word, it often crops up in copy that describes software.
  • What we recommend: Use a specific term or phrase that helps your audience understand a particular attribute, such as “fast” or “efficient.”

Incent

  • What it means: to provide with an incentive.
  • Why to avoid: The back formation of “incentivize,” “incent” can come across as overly stiff and formal and isn’t commonly used in conversation.
  • What we recommend: “Encourage,” “motivate,” and “entice” are more likely to sound familiar to readers.

Synergize

  • What it means: to combine or work together in order to be more effective, or to make things or people do this.
  • Why to avoid: Despite being the name of the sixth “highly effective habit” in Stephen R. Covey’s popular book, this term has an air of new-age patchouli about it. It conjures up images of mood rings and magical thinking.
  • What we recommend: “Cooperate,” “unite,” and “work together” are neutral terms and phrases that convey similar ideas.

Utilize

  • What it means: to make use of.
  • Why to avoid: In most cases, it’s not necessary. It adds a few more syllables and makes your message less straightforward.
  • What we recommend: For most situations, “use” will get the job done, in simpler language.

What words or phrases get under your skin? Let us know and your term may appear in a future blog post.

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