This article originally appeared as a blog post with the Harvard Business Review.
It's mission-critical to be plain-spoken, whether you're trying to be best-of-breed at outside-the-box thinking or simply incentivizing colleagues to achieve a paradigm shift in core-performance value-adds. Leading-edge leveraging of your plain-English skill set will ensure that your actionable items synergize future-proof assets with your global-knowledge repository.
Seriously, though, it's important to write plainly. You want to sound like a person, not an institution. But it's hard to do, especially if you work with people who are addicted to buzzwords. It takes a lot of practice.
Back when journalists were somewhat more fastidious with the language than they are today, newspaper editors often kept an "index expurgatorius": a roster of words and phrases that under no circumstances (except perhaps in a damning quote) would find their way into print.
Here's such a list for the business writer. (Thanks to my Twitter followers for their contributions.) Of course, it's just a starting point — add to it as you come across other examples of bizspeak that hinder communication by substituting clichés for actual thought.
actionable (apart from legal action)
at the end of the day
back of the envelope
bandwidth (outside electronics)
bring our A game
ducks in a row
hit the ground running
kick the can down the road
let's do lunch
let's take this offline
level the playing field
on the same page
out of pocket (except in reference to expenses)
push the envelope
putting lipstick on a pig
seismic shift (outside earthquake references)
think outside the box
throw it against the wall and see if it sticks
throw under the bus
under the radar
verbage (the correct term is verbiage — in reference only to verbose phrasings)
where the rubber meets the road
Many of these phrases have become voguish in business — abstain if you can. Sometimes people use them to enhance their own sense of belonging or to sound "in the know." Or they've been taught that good writing is hyperformal, so they stiffen up and pile on the clichés.
Hunt for offending phrases: Start looking for bizspeak in all kinds of documents, from memos to marketing plans, and you'll find it everywhere. You'll eventually learn to spot it — and avoid it — in your own writing. You'll omit canned language such as Attached please find and other phrases that only clutter your message.
Writing plainly means expressing ideas as straightforwardly as you can — without sacrificing meaning or tone. Think of it as bringing your written voice into line with your spoken voice.
Bizspeak may seem like a convenient shorthand, but it suggests to readers that you're on autopilot, thoughtlessly using boilerplate phrases that they've heard over and over. Brief, readable documents, by contrast, show care and thought — and earn people's attention.
Bryan A. Garner is a leading authority on writing, usage, grammar, and style. He is the author of many books on writing, including the HBR Guide to Better Business Writingand the best-selling reference work Garner’s Modern American Usage. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanAGarner.