By Brad Shorr published January 19, 2014

6 Enemies of Clarity in Your Business Storytelling Efforts

thief caught by flashlightOne of the most common questions in content marketing is, “What is high-quality content?” Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. Quality has technical aspects, such as grammar, as well as more qualitative dimensions, such as whether your business’ story moves readers on an emotional level.

This post will discuss a very important aspect of business storytelling: clarity. Clear writing may not be the single, defining element of quality, but without it, readers are unlikely to be persuaded by your story — or take action on any business purpose that stands behind it. 

Clarity’s enemy No. 1: Business buzzwords

Using buzzwords is often a consequence of lazy thinking. Consider a word that has been driven into the ground: solutions. When a company says it offers SEO solutions, or packaging solutions, or accounting solutions, what is it really telling you? The phrase says nothing about the company’s product, service, brand, or value. When going down this road, your company should simply say it sells SEO, packaging, or accounting.

On the other hand, if a company says it offers SEO services to entrepreneurs, or packaging products for extremely challenging applications, or accounting services for nonprofits, it may not be telling the whole story, but it tells a clearer story — it provides readers with a point they can relate to and take action on.

Yes, eliminating your reliance on common industry buzzwords like solutions can take real effort. Actual selling points must be articulated, and perhaps even elaborated on in detail. But other buzzwords can be dealt with less laboriously. For instance, empower can be replaced with assign responsibility; incentivize with motivate. (For many more examples, review this recent post of mine that discusses how to eliminate 50 overused words and phrases.)

Peppering your business storytelling content with needless buzzwords such as solutions and empowerment can bore and confuse readers, in addition to under-informing them. Add clarity by using more exact and descriptive alternatives that truly convey your brand’s value and purpose.

Clarity’s enemy No. 2: Obscure terms and industry jargon

In an effort to avoid buzzwords, some writers go overboard in the other direction and use words that may be unfamiliar to the intended audience. This will only confuse and irritate your readers.

Here are some examples that came up in content I recently read:

  •          Disseminate instead of distribute
  •          Expeditious instead of fast
  •          Optimize instead of improve
  •          Oscillate instead of go back and forth
  •          Remediate instead of fix
  •          Tangential instead of unimportant, or non-essential

For web writing in particular, simplicity enhances clarity because readers commonly scan content, and are likely to pass over big words without even trying to understand them.

The same applies to business jargon, though it’s important to note that some standard terms have a specific meaning in certain business situations, and can help readers understand your intentions more easily. For example, the word remediate may be considered jargon in its general use as a substitute for remedy; yet, in the context of occupational health, it is often used to refer to a specific inspection and assessment process — as in mold remediation. Using remediation in its proper, precise business context adds clarity, rather than detracting from it (assuming your audience works in the industry, or is undoubtedly familiar with the term in question). The problems arise when writers pick up words such as remediate and use them in more general business storytelling scenarios.

Even when used properly, jargon can still undermine clarity when it is overused. Thinking back to my days in the packaging industry, it was always tempting to use phrases like, “the low coefficient of friction of this closed-cell foam enhances its surface protection characteristics,” in our marketing content. Even though packaging engineers would understand this, a clearer way to express this same concept would be, “this foam will not scratch your product.” When in doubt, clarity is best served by keeping it simple and by emphasizing solid benefits in your content.

Clarity’s enemy No. 3: Inaccurate use of words and phrases 

When it comes to using buzzwords and jargon, there is a level of judgment involved in deciding what’s clear and what’s just unnecessary. But some business words and phrases are commonly used incorrectly — and this is never a good thing. Not only does it reduce clarity, it can also convey the opposite meaning of what you intended to communicate in your business storytelling.

For instance, if you confuse former with latter, and end up recommending “the former of two choices” (i.e., choice #1) when you meant “the latter of two choices,” (i.e., the second one), you’ve put yourself in a jam. If you say literally when you mean figuratively (as in, “this product will literally knock your socks off”), you are going to sound silly and risk losing credibility.

A few other common examples:

  •          A writer implies, while a reader infers
  •          In lieu of means instead of, not in light of
  •          Something that may happen is more likely than something that might happen

Unfortunately, education in basic grammar and usage is not what it once was. As a result, editors must be extremely careful in reviewing the accuracy of submitted copy.

To help in the pursuit of grammatical accuracy, here is a fairly extensive list of commonly misused business terms. For writing and editing reference, AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Elements of Style have served me well for business writing. (If you would like to suggest other reference guides that would be helpful to the CMI community, I encourage you to share them in the comments at the end of this post).

Clarity’s enemy No. 4: Metaphors

There are different schools of thought about using metaphors in business writing. Some contend that metaphors interfere with comprehension because they force the reader to slow down and grasp a meaning that is not readily apparent. Others say that an apt metaphor is worth a thousand words.

While I agree that an apt metaphor can enhance clarity, the wickedly difficult problem is coming up with one that works. If the metaphor is strained or inappropriate, it stands in the way of comprehension. If the metaphor is overused — the ball is in your court, for example — readers will understand it, but may dismiss your business storytelling as unimaginative and unworthy of their attention.

My favorite example of a metaphor that works against clarity is one I’ll bet you are familiar with: Content is king. This phrase may turn heads and get clicks — but what does it mean? What is content king of? What specifically is subordinate to content, and why? Kingship implies a hierarchy that doesn’t exist in this context. Content is one element of marketing — an extremely important one to be sure — that strengthens some elements (such as conversion optimization); yet it relies on other elements for maximum effectiveness (such as SEO). Marketers will accelerate the learning curve around business storytelling by eliminating clumsy metaphors like these, and by instead focusing on explaining how content marketing works.

Effective metaphors tend to be simple — which is perhaps why they are so difficult to craft, and so rare to see. Consider a few great ones:

  • Organizational DNA: Here’s a case where an acronym conveys several obvious yet profound characteristics of an organization — it is complex, alive, ever-present, changing, defined at a basic level, etc.
  • Sticky: This one may be past its prime, but is nevertheless an effective word to convey the benefit of a whole set of web development techniques. Sticky makes visitors stay on your website.
  • Tipping point: With these two simple words, Malcolm Gladwell expressed a complex process of how change takes hold.

In order to create clear and effective metaphors, the writer must have a complete grasp of the subject. Even then, not all authoritative writers are masters of metaphor. For the most part, business storytellers should view great metaphors as happy accidents and focus elsewhere for devices to strategically improve content quality.

Clarity’s enemy No. 5: Illogical, insufficient or incomplete arguments

So far, I’ve discussed clarity at the word level. Let’s now consider some bigger-picture issues. You don’t have to be a logician to be an effective business writer or substantive editor, but a basic understanding of logical thought certainly helps: In the B2B world, emotion certainly plays a role in content, but buying decisions normally have to be explained and justified logically. Yet, common fallacies like the following often crop up in business content:

  • “SEO is critical for marketing because you can’t generate traffic without it:” This statement assumes what it is trying to prove — i.e., that SEO generates traffic. In addition, it oversimplifies the argument because there may be other ways to generate traffic.
  • “Don’t trust ‘the cloud’ — install our servers:” This statement plays on a person’s unfamiliarity or discomfort with a certain type of technology, setting forth an argument for making a purchase that does not have a sound basis in reality. Even if this negative perception of cloud computing were true, the statement still fails to put forth any reasons why the company’s servers provide a good alternative. 
  • “Sales forces that use tablets are 10 times more likely to respond to customers within one hour:” Assuming the statistic is accurate, this statement implies a cause-and-effect relationship that may not exist; causation and correlation are quite different. Furthermore, statistics such as this may be accurate, but not based on a wide sampling or obtained using sound methodology.

Thinking about your business proposition from the customer’s point of view goes a long way toward firming up flimsy arguments. Imagine what would happen if:

  • Your new client tells his boss there’s no other way to get traffic besides SEO. Will that statement be challenged? What kinds of challenges would you expect?
  • Your new client announces to his IT staff that the cloud can’t be trusted. Will that be challenged — and in what ways?
  • Your new client tells his boss your tablet will reduce response time to one hour. How might that be challenged — and what will the consequences be if it doesn’t happen? 

Here is a handy section of the Purdue Owl, Logic in Argumentative Writing. If business writers and editors have a decent grasp on the fairly simple information contained here, they will be able to produce content with far more clarity than the norm.

Clarity’s enemy No. 6: Stylistic and design weaknesses

In closing, I want to mention several stylistic inhibitors of clarity. While these get written about frequently, they bear repeating here:

  • Complex sentence construction: Instead of piling up clauses, favor short, simple sentences. Use longer ones selectively, to prevent a choppy flow.
  • Long paragraphs: Web readers scan; paragraphs over five lines tend to be passed over.
  • Wide margins: The Content Marketing Institute blog looks to be about 700 pixels wide — just about perfect. Overly wide or narrow margins make reading (and therefore comprehension) difficult.
  • Absence of lists: Ordered or unordered lists make it easy for readers to grasp selling points, features, benefits, etc.
  • Hard-to-read fonts: Italics and over-stylized fonts can be difficult to read and don’t necessarily even make a good visual impression.
  • Overly small fonts: Larger fonts are always a safer bet than smaller ones, especially as the average age of the target audience rises.
  • Poor contrast: Gray text on a gray background, orange text on a purple background, etc., can render an otherwise clear message incomprehensible.

Over to you

How do you manage the clarity of your content? What content clarity advice do you have for the CMI community?

Looking for more examples of clear, compelling business storytelling? Read CMI’s Content Marketing Playbook: 24 Epic Ideas for Connecting with Your Customers.

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Brad Shorr

Brad Shorr is Director of B2B Marketing for Straight North, an internet marketing agency headquartered in Chicago. He is an experienced content strategist, respected blogger, and SEO copywriter. Connect with him on Twitter @bradshorr.

Other posts by Brad Shorr

  • ronellsmith

    Brad, Brad, Brad,

    What have you done here, sir? Let me answer that: You have shone a bright light on what has become an epidemic in web copy writing.

    It’s as though we now suffer from “if-it-should-be-said/written, saying-it-less-clearly-is-more-effective.” Sadly, we see even trained writers falling into this trap.

    Effective content marketing demands adherence to clear, unburdened communication.

    Now, hopefully, your piece can be printed and pasted on bulletin boards across the country. Here, let me start.

    Thanks for the always-stellar information, Brad.

    RS

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thank you, Ronell. I appreciate your support and spreading the word about the importance of content quality.

  • https://plus.google.com/108478071979063962649/ Michael Cunningham

    Bravo, sir! I may have to create a workshop series for my marketing coworkers based on this article. Great stuff here.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Workshop — love that idea. I’ve been writing a lot about quality in writing lately because I am so tired of hearing the advice, “Write great content!” But how exactly do you do that? With all the focus on content in marketing, it’s obvious that businesses should be training/coaching writers — but not many do. Glad to hear you are taking the initiative. It should pay off.

  • Kimetta Coleman

    After that does anyone feel competent enough to write anything?

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      I sure hope so! Writers should always be learning, pushing themselves.

  • http://cashwithatrueconscience.com/rbblog Ryan Biddulph

    Brad well said! Complexity is the ultimate stupidity ;)

    How many people actually speak like this?(Tips 1 and 2) Few. Fools try to impress. Wise people connect by writing how they speak.

    Heck, I even leave typos in my post sometimes. Why? I do not always speak smoothly so if I am truly being authentic you better believe I will add a few errors in there too.

    Since I generate up to 14,000 page visits daily I guess it is working for me ;)

    Thanks for sharing!

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Ryan, With that kind of traffic, you should definitely keep up whatever you’re doing. While I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving typos in intentionally, “luckily” I’m a poor proofreader that I leave more than a few in anyway. Certain kinds of business writing demand a higher level of grammatical accuracy than others. It has a lot to do with the audience you’re writing for, I think.

  • nydia

    Spot on. Excellent guide for delivering clear content. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    For me, inaccurate use of words and phrases is the most common enemies of clear storytelling. Thanks for sharing this very informative article Brad. I learned something new after reading your article.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thanks, Barbara. I learned a few things writing it!

  • http://referralcandy.com/ Samuel @ ReferralCandy

    Hi Brad,

    I couldn’t agree more! Some of us (myself included) fall into the trap of trying to articulate our ideas in the detailed way possible, and that often involves long sentences and complicated words that only makes sense to us. I think it’s important that we take our readers’ perspectives into account, and try to simplify things as much as possible. We should speak in a way that anyone can understand.

    As for Clarity’s enemy No. 1, I find it funny when the people who write them don’t seem to understand the context and actual meaning of the words. ‘Solutions’ is such an interesting word in that it adds absolutely no value to the idea being conveyed. haha.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      It’s much harder to write with simplicity, that’s for sure. One of my favorite quotes is Blaise Pascal, who said something along the lines of, “I’m sorry this letter is so long, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter.” I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing!

      • http://blog.halobiz.co.nz HaloBiz

        Who said “you’re getting the long version because I don’t have time to write the short one”? Winston Churchill?

        Ain’t this so true? It definitely takes more time (and skill) to use a mere 10 words when 20 is today’s norm.

  • http://bulanetwork.com/ Randy Cantrell

    Between trying to sound smart (sometimes smarter than they really are) and trying to say too much (being too long-winded)…many stories become nothing more than “let your eyes roll up into the back of your head” drivel. I urge people to record themselves reading their content (and to listen to it). What sounds good in your head doesn’t always sound so good when you read it aloud. Beauty in the eye of the creator ain’t always beauty in the eye of the beholder.

  • Barb Ostapina

    “Unfortunately, education in basic grammar and usage is not what it once was.” Oh, Brad, as a technical writer and former teacher, I’ve been banging my head on the wall over this one for some time now. What’s become of us? And what’s to be done? There simply aren’t enough editors to go around. Or there aren’t enough companies that care enough to invest in one. Or both. Alas.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Barb, It is indeed an overwhelming problem. We think we’re enlightened, but in many respects we’re living in the dark ages.

  • http://www.onlinemarketingcoach.com/ Mike Murray

    I really enjoyed your piece Brad. You covered considerable ground. Your post reflected the best of the very tips you were sharing. Even with the length, it was very well organized – easy to follow and digest. You’ve reminded me to triple check what I’m writing. I may be confident about when to use words like fewer or less, but further and farther still trip me up. One day I’ll master them. Thanks again for the care you took with this topic.

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Thanks, Mike. I’m lucky enough to have a great editor, which makes my job easier.

  • Karen @kewitham

    Thank you for this — you hit some great points. I tell anyone who will listen to read Zinsser’s “On Writing Well.” A good dose of Hemingway is another great short course in clear, succinct writing. I work in the financial industry, which perhaps along with tech is among the guiltiest in overuse of jargon and complicated copy!

    • http://www.straightnorth.com Brad Shorr

      Funny you mention Zinsser. I’m reading his “Write to Learn” and it’s fascinating. “On Writing Well” is now on my list — thanks for the tip!

  • http://blog.halobiz.co.nz HaloBiz

    Thanks for writing this article Brad – a lot of thought and effort has gone into it.

    How about hyperbole?

    Or the over-abundant, often-exaggerated, amazingly-brilliant use of adjectives (?!)…

    And while I’m at it, the necessity some people feel for need to bring my attention to every sentence they write by replacing a full stop with an exclamation mark! Wow! Gets me every time!

    But seriously – I appreciate what you’ve written here – thanks :-)

  • Andrew Heaton

    Hi Brad,

    Sorry I haven’t been in touch for a long time. Unfortunately, I have lost touch with pretty much everyone from my old blogging days (Likewise, with a number of friends from Korea).

    How are you these days? I hope you are well.

    Thanks for writing on this subject. Clarity is essential in all forms of effective writing. Having spent the last couple of years working as an industry journalist, I usually write a draft of my article and then sit down and think to myself, ‘OK, how can a write this sharper, shorter and more clearly?’ I usually find I am able to say exactly the same thing or even more using ten to fifteen percent fewer words, and by the end of this process, my article is not only clearer but also far more powerful than the original draft.

    The reason I do this? Because I know our target readers (like most people) do not have time to muck around and will not bother with us unless we offer informative and relevant content right off the bat.

    Now articles marketing copy is not the same as articles but I would imagine the same principle would apply. Don’t muck them around and get to the point. Write your content, then sit down and ask yourself how you can say the same thing or more using fewer words.

    On a side note, one extra point I would make with regard to one of the examples in your fifth point is to avoid round words like ‘ten times’ or ‘twenty percent’ . Instead of saying ‘research has shown that sales forces that use tablets are 10 times more likely to respond to customers within one hour’ (similar to one of your examples), for example, why not say ‘According to a report by the Harvard University released last year, sales forces which use tablets are 10.86 times more likely to respond to customers within one hour’? Notice how the first statement sounds almost like some round about lazy number which could even be made up but the second has real impact and credibility?