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    He Said What?

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    Forgive me if you’ve heard this one:

    A new pastor delivers a sermon at a church. After the service, he stands at the door, shaking people’s hands, getting to know names and faces. Everyone says, “Nice to meet you, Pastor,” except one old curmudgeon who says, “That was a terrible sermon.”  

    The next person in line steps up quickly and says, “Don’t pay any attention to him, Pastor. He doesn’t really think things through, just repeats whatever he hears.”

    To be honest, there’s a lot of that going on in business writing. Trying to impress a client, we end up repeating phrases like these:

    • full-service solutions provider
    • cost effective end-to-end solutions
    • uniquely innovative solutions
    • value-added services provider
    • smart services capabilities
    • collaborative partner approach

    Strung together, they result in a sentence like this one I found online: “[We] uniquely deliver innovative solutions, unmatched expertise, and smart services capabilities using a collaborative partner approach.”

    Let’s analyze that sentence one word at a time. (We’ll skip “and” and “a.”)

    • Uniquely is a bold claim. It says “no one else in the world does things like we do.” Most readers are likely to be skeptical.
    • Deliver is too strenuous a verb in this context. It draws attention to itself, and away from the main idea.
    • Innovative has become a throwaway term in our age. Everyone claims to be innovative. Worse, uniquely and innovative battle each other in the sentence. On the one hand, they’re redundant; on the other, uniquely trumps innovative, deflating that second word.
    • Solutions has become the bland, white-bread business term of our century. It’s also a nominalization—turning a strong verb to a weaker noun. Consider how much stronger it sounds to say, “We solve problems” than “we provide solutions.”
    • Unmatched is just another word for unique. It invites the same skepticism.
    • Expertise is as bland and empty as solutions. Similarly, it turns expert (a strong noun or adjective) into a longer, weaker noun.
    • Smart and services are inseparable in this sentence, but what do they mean? The term smart services is either jargon (which should be avoided) or a specific product (which should be capitalized).
    • Capabilities undermines the offering of services. Imagine telling a guest in your house, “We can provide you with hot coffee capabilities.”  
    • Using is better than the common utilizing, but is it really necessary at all? Some of the sentence’s bloat could be reduced by changing using a to through, for example.
    • Collaborative should be assumed in business. Does it really need to be restated here?
    • Partner seems redundant after collaborative, unless the idea is that “we partner with other businesses to meet your need.” And if that’s the case, it should be stated more clearly.
    • Approach is a cautious word. A gazelle approaches water, alert for predators. The word hardly seems fitting in the face of unique and innovative and unmatched expertise. Note also that it is another example of turning a verb to a noun.

    So what is this sentence actually trying to say? I’m guessing it means the following:

    We offer expert, innovative Smart Services tailored to your specific needs.

    If that doesn’t cover it, add a second sentence with details. Make the writing clear and specific, not bombastic and full of buzz words.

    For more on this topic, you might enjoy Jason Fried’s 2010 Inc. post, “Why Is Business Writing So Awful?

    —Lester Smith

    Photo by mpclemens