Ban These Words and Phrases From Your Communications Right Now (an A-to-Y Guide)
Ever play jargon bingo?
You mark off a square on your card every time you hear one of those words or phrases that sounds like fingernails on the chalkboard. Maybe it’s a word so frequently used as to render it almost meaningless. Or perhaps it’s an acronym that makes readers have to pause (or Google) to remember what it means.
The winner of jargon bingo crosses off all the squares in a row or diagonally first (yep, basic bingo rules).
But, in truth, nobody wins when jargon sneaks into content.
To help you avoid these content no-nos (or know you’re not alone in your frustration), we asked the speakers at Content Marketing World 2022 to share their “favorite” (i.e., most hated) jargon.
Amy Higgins, director, content strategy, Lyra Health , couldn’t pick one: “I hate all jargon. I wish we could speak simply and reduce the number of acronyms we use in our day-to-day business. Most jargon will not translate well or mean the same thing across audiences.”
Meg Coffey, managing director, Coffey & Tea, isn’t a fan of using big words just to sound smart. “If anything, once you start using the big words, I assume you are covering for something else and tune out.”
Let’s start with some of the words and phrases that bug them the most.
I wish “activation” would die and never come back. Who talks like this? Other than businesspeople who never talked to their customers about their needs. Do customers say, “If only this were activated …”? Nope.”
Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder, Keeping it HumanI wish activation would die and never come back. Who talks like this? Do customers say, If only this were activated? Nope, says #CMWorld speaker @kathyklotzguest via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
There is no such thing as business-speak. If an outsider does not understand specialist jargon, it’s up to the specialist to explain it as one might to a young child or a golden retriever.
For insiders, jargon functions, well, just like NFL play calls. They work fast and effectively as long as anyone on the team can make a golden retriever or CEO understand the meaning AND ensures everybody has the same understanding of the jargon word.
Bert van Loon, strategist, CMFF
It has grown to have a negative connotation and causes employees to wince when they hear it. Whether you are putting new processes in place or changing your team structure, nobody wants to feel like they are being “managed” through change.
Let your employees lead the change. Let them tell you what is working and what is not. Then respond to those concerns. Focus on the positives for them in the change (not the positives for the company). And let’s face it, most people have been through so much change in the past few years that they are exhausted. That doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want change. Most people are not averse to change if it makes their lives better.
Andi Robinson, content consultant, Hijinx MarketingChange management causes employees to wince. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being managed through change, says @hijinxmarketing via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
The phrase “check out …” is the most vapid, lazy call to action ever invented. Stop it. Verbs are your friends, people.
Think about it: When’s the last time you ever checked out anything anyone ever told you to check out? Never? Exactly. Because it’s such an empty, valueless call to action, “check out” undercuts your authority and suggests “spam city.”
What will happen should I click whatever it is you want me to “check out?” Tell me. Give me a good reason to click that sucker. Make me trust you.
Kate Bradley Chernis, co-founder and CEO, LatelyCheck out is the most vapid, lazy call to action ever invented, says #CMWorld speaker @LatelyAIKately via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
The word content is so overused that it’s practically meaningless. When I speak about content, I try to be as specific as possible about the type of content or its purpose so everyone around me is clear.
If you talk generally about content in a meeting, one person comes away imagining a video; another is ready for a series of blog posts; and another is envisioning an influencer marketing campaign. Even if you don’t yet have a specific content plan, be clear about the types of content that will or won’t be effective to manage everyone’s different expectations about what the content is.
Monica Norton, head of content marketing, YelpThe world content is so overused that it’s practically meaningless, says @monicalnorton via @CMIContent #CMWorld. Click To Tweet
This one isn’t on my list, but there are people who don’t like when content marketers use the term “content strategy” because technically, content strategy includes all areas of content, including non-marketing content (i.e., internal docs).
When most people say “content strategy,” they usually mean “content marketing strategy.” It’s an implied difference, but some people get really worked up about this.”
Andy Crestodina, co-founder and CMO, Orbit Media StudiosWhen most people say content strategy, they usually mean content marketing strategy. Some people get really worked up about this, says #CMWorld speaker @crestodina via @CMIContent Click To Tweet
I shiver anytime a marketer talks about engagement. What exactly is engagement? Ask 20 marketers what they think it means, and you’ll get 20 different answers. So, next time you catch yourself about to utter the word “engagement,” stop. Ask yourself, what exactly do you mean?
Andrew Davis, author and keynote speaker, Monumental ShiftNext time you catch yourself about to utter the word engagement, stop. Ask yourself, what exactly do you mean? #CMWorld speaker @DrewDavisHere via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
It’s any time someone says they offer “holistic” services. No one offers everything. The marketing and business world is far too diverse for that to even be possible. Soup-to-nuts doesn’t exist here. So, shut it.
Jason Falls, senior influence strategist, CornettHolistic services. No one offers everything. Soup-to-nuts doesn't exist here. So, shut it, says @JasonFalls via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Learnings is on my personal list because it sounds like something a toddler would say. Plus, we already have two perfectly good words that express the same meaning: lessons and takeaways.
Domain-specific jargon can be useful as shorthand when you’re communicating with other people in your field (e.g., SERP, click-throughs, bounce rate). But general business jargon is unnecessary – and exclusionary. People who don’t speak English natively often struggle with “corporate speak,” which should give all of us pause as our customers and teammates are becoming more globally diverse every day.
Sarah Goff-Dupont, principal writer, AtlassianLearnings sounds like something a toddler would say. Plus, we already have good words for the same meaning: lessons and takeaways, says @SarahGoffDupont via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
It might not seem contentious, but to an audience based in the Southern Hemisphere having a North Star as your guiding or underlying principle is confusing, illogical, and just plain wrong. We have the Southern Cross, but we don’t use that as a guiding light. Why not just use the terms “guiding principle” or “core message” instead?
Gina Balarin, director and content queen, Verballistics
We are moving into the product management service industry. So every day, I see PMS. And every day, I think of the other one.
Viveka von Rosen, chief visibility officer, VengresoWe are moving into the product management service industry. So every day, I see PMS. And every day, I think of the other one, says @LinkedInExpert via @@CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
This word is overused. Perfection is a myth. Stop calling everything “perfect.”
Bernie Borges, vice president, content marketing, iQor
Making events virtual (digital) as well as in-person (physical) makes them more accessible and means that more diverse voices will be heard. But I cannot stand the word “phygital.” It is the worst portmanteau of all time, and I shudder every time I hear it.
Jacqueline Baxter, senior digital strategist, DX, SitecoreI cannot stand the word phygital. It is the worst portmanteau of all time, and I shudder every time I hear it, says @JaxBaxter via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
I’m going to “reach out” to Katie. How about we just go back to saying “contact”?
Justin Ethington, partner, TrendCandyInstead of saying reach out, how about we just go back to saying contact, asks Justin Ethington of TrendCandy via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet
SEO optimized, SEO content
Early in the existence of these terms, they were used to transition a legacy flow to something that could perform. Over time, the terms have been associated with low-quality or checkbox processes.
Building content that is high quality and has the potential to perform is the silo breaker, while SEO edits and the debasing of SEO by classifying content as “SEO content” create silos.
Jeff Coyle, co-founder and CSO, MarketMuse, Inc.
Single source of truth
It’s hard to pick a winner for this one, but for content marketing, I’ll have to go with “single source of truth.” There’s simply no way to have a single source of truth if you’re doing your job correctly. So martech and CMS vendors, please stop contacting me on LinkedIn telling me you’ve got a solution for this.
Jenn VandeZande, editor-in-chief, SAP Customer ExperienceThere’s no way to have a single source of truth. So martech and CMS vendors, please stop contacting me on LinkedIn telling me you’ve got a solution for this, says @jennvzande via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
It makes me cringe. I’ve read so much B2B copy where a company talks about providing a solution but leaves me with absolutely no idea of what they actually do.
Is it software you’re selling? Hardware? Consulting? What? Don’t get me wrong. The ability to solve a prospect’s problem is huge. However, when people can’t determine what you’re offering – how it is that you can actually help them — it makes your solution less appealing.
For example, the company promising the solution to my need to get more customers could be peddling marketing automation, media, creative services, research, printing, or something else.
Skip the hackneyed phrase. Proceed directly to specificity and clarity. At least, that’s the solution I’d offer (wink, wink).
Nancy Harhut, chief creative officer, HBT MarketingSolution makes me cringe. Skip the hackneyed phrase. Proceed directly to specificity and clarity, says @nharhut via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
But it’s not just words and phrases that are irritating to hear and read. How many of these sentences (and one question) do you come across in a week?
I encourage all marketers to ditch this business phrase. We need to think of another way of talking about the purpose of our content reviews because reviewers often feel like they must make an addition to something to make it stronger.
Too often, this means that people we ask to review a piece of content or a creative brief feel obligated to add ideas just for the sake of adding something new. Sometimes you don’t need to “add value.” Sometimes you need to recognize other people’s value and acknowledge that their draft perfectly meets the need of the project or campaign.
Erika Heald, founder, lead consultant, Erika Heald Marketing ConsultingSometimes you don’t need to add value. Sometimes you need to acknowledge that a draft perfectly meets the need, says @sferika via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Can you make this go viral?
This tells me that a client doesn’t understand how public relations/content marketing work. Going viral became a thing back in the 2000s. Quora says the term to “describe rapid and widespread social proliferation of a meme or product” started picking up steam in 2008. I imagine it’s been causing marketing folks headaches ever since.
Clients need to understand that the only way to ensure you’ll be featured is to pay for an ad. Public relations and content marketing take time and dedicated effort. Very little success is had overnight.”
Michelle Garrett, consultant and writer, Garrett Public RelationsGoing viral became a thing in the 2000s. PR and #ContentMarketing take time and dedicated effort. Very little success is had overnight, says @PRisUs via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Content is king
Can we throw this phrase out yet? Content is most definitely royalty (insert hair flip here), but it’s not a domineering force that can claim its rightful throne in search results just by existing. Showing up on page one of search results takes work. Driving qualified traffic takes work. It takes only a birthright to be king. Existence does not equal excellence.
Haley Collins, director of operations and content, GPOCan we throw content is king phrase out yet? #Content is most definitely royalty, but it’s not a domineering force that can claim its rightful throne in search results, says Haley Collins via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Done is better than perfect
OK, I understand how positive an agile mindset is. However, I see many teams using this quote as permission to create low-quality content. Done is better than perfect only when it comes to the first step of a project. During the rest of your life, please make sure your content creators will always run after the perfection stage.
Cassio Politi, founder, Tracto Content Marketing
I hope this email finds you well
I don’t necessarily hate it, but I don’t understand where it emanated from. Why wouldn’t you just say you hope the person is doing well?
Michael Bordieri, senior content solutions consultant, LinkedIn
It is what it is
It is an awful saying, which I am trying not to use anymore. It normalizes a status quo that is immovable and defeatist. I believe anything can change, and as content marketers, we know the power and impact of words, imagery, and video to make what it is, everything it can be.
Karen McFarlane, chief marketing officer, LetterShop
Let’s table that
Whenever someone doesn’t want to make an actual decision, this phrase comes out. No better way to leave something unaddressed until it becomes a real issue than by leaving it “on the table.”
Brian Piper, director of content strategy and assessment, University of Rochester
Think outside the box
What does that even mean, anyway?!
Chris Ducker, founder, Youpreneur.comWhat does think outside the box even mean anyway, asks @ChrisDucker via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
We need to push
When I am in a marketing strategy meeting and hear the words, “We need to push.” Nope. Who wants to be pushed into anything? It needs to stop.
Instead, let’s start with better questions about the consumer or potential client’s mindset. “How can we engage?” and “Who cares about this product or service?”
Jacquie Chakirelis, chief digital strategy officer, Quest Digital/ Great Lakes Publishing
What keeps you up at night?
I was just put in my place when I asked a client, “What keeps you up at night?” He looked at me and said, “Mike, you can do better than that.” He went on to tell me that what keeps him up at night has nothing to do with business or the services I sell. It’s his kids, gun reform, the war, and other things. So I hate what I used to say.
Michael Weiss, vice president of consulting services and solutions, Creative Circle
You’re on mute
OK, this isn’t business-speak per se, but it’s a line you hear in every business meeting. Over two years in with “all Zoom, all the time,” I don’t know why we’re not better trained to unmute ourselves before we speak. Maybe the video meeting platforms will solve this challenge using technology (e.g., have an optional setting to automatically unmute you when you start speaking, using AI to adjust for when the dog barks).
Dennis Shiao, founder, Attention Retention
Before this article is concluded (because a list like this is never complete), let’s hit on some broad categories that can thwart and disrupt the audience’s consumption of your content.
Technical B2B industries are huge abusers of acronyms. There is a place for them, of course, but to limit confusion and ensure your message is received, do these things:
- Create an acronym guide for internal reference
- Always spell the full phrase at first mention with the acronym in parentheses.
Wendy Covey, co-founder and CEO, TREW MarketingTechnical B2B industries are huge abusers of acronyms. To limit confusion, always spell the full phrase at first mention with the acronym in parentheses, says @wendycovey via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
We all need to think about our audiences and make everyone feel included and respected. Stop saying “you guys” in meetings. Replace “man-hours” with “people-hours.” Think about industry-specific terms that may isolate people and aim to be more inclusive. Speak up to help others shift toward kinder, more culturally appropriate language.
Penny Gralewski, senior director, product and portfolio marketing, DataRobotStop saying you guys in meetings. Speak up to help others shift toward kinder, more culturally appropriate language, says @virtualpenny via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Hustle mentality language
I hate any and all jargon promoting the hustle mentality, such as “Just put your head down and grind” and “Work until it’s worth it.”
This makes people feel like the goal is to serve your business, but your business is supposed to serve your family and other people.
If you’re always working, you aren’t serving anyone well. Obviously, you have to work hard, but that can’t be the only thing you do. You must invest time and money into things that bring you energy and joy. Otherwise, you are hustling forever. At the end of it, maybe you have a lot of money, but you no longer have any relationships to enjoy it with you.
Tim Schmoyer, founder/CEO, Video Creators
I hate the gratuitous addition of “y” to words like relevance, competence, and resilience. There’s no distinction in the definition, and it’s gratuitously cluttery. Whyyyyyyy?
Carmen Hill, principal strategist and writer, Chill ContentI hate the gratuitous addition of y to words like relevance, competence, and resilience. There's no distinction in the definition. Whyyyyyyy? @CarmenHIll via @CMIContent. #CMWorld Click To Tweet
Think before you speak (or write)
Christopher Penn, chief data scientist, TrustInsights.ai, says he’s most bothered when people use jargon to exclude others or obscure the truth: “When you use jargon, you’re intending to make things less clear, less obvious, less accessible, less inclusive. Given that many of us have pledged to be more inclusive, jargon is contrary to that goal.”
Are you guilty of using any of these? Which ones make you tune out, stumble, or scream silently as you read? Share in the comments.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute