So, 2023 was an interesting year. We worked with great clients and helped them take their ideas to market. But we also grappled with some unfortunate new trends in business writing that obscured what authors were trying to say. Here are a few of the most rampant, with (slightly disguised) examples from drafts we edited.
The misuse—and overuse—of across has become endemic in business writing. Here are some examples:
Educate customers across new channels.
Embrace innovative approaches across the lifecycle.
Provide strategic leadership across R&D, public relations, and marketing.
As a preposition, across means from one side of something to the other, as in to “reach across the aisle.” In these examples, across is misused; there are more precise prepositions that better communicate what the author means. For example:
Educate customers via (or through) new channels.
Provide strategic leadership to R&D, public relations, and marketing.
Embrace innovative approaches along (or throughout) the lifecycle.
With 150 prepositions in the English language, authors convey a stronger message if they pick the best one and resist the temptation to fall back on across. The article I took these examples from used across 50 times.
All vs. every
The abuse of all has become equally endemic in business writing. For example:
All account managers will serve as the voice of the consumer and retailer.
This usage is also wrong because all refers to a group; every is used to refer to each member of the group. The sentence implies that the account managers will relay the voice of the customer in chorus. Also, all is vaguer than every. Take this example:
Ensure high-quality content is consistently available to all customers across all channels.
Maybe this means all, but it’s vague enough that if the author were challenged, he or she might say, “Okay, most customers and channels.” But if we write, “Ensure high-quality content is consistently available to every customer through every channel,” there’s no wiggle room. And it forces the author to ensure “every customer and channel” is a reasonable recommendation. If it isn’t reasonable, and a reader knows it, the author risks their credibility. Perhaps “Ensure that quality information is available to any customer likely to need it, through their preferred channel” would be more reasonable, credible, precise, and achievable.
Either of these words used metaphorically is problematic: Drive, as a verb, requires a herder or a chauffeur, and impact happens when something is hit, hard. Used together, they are cliché and vague. Driving impact is vastly overused to mean creating profits, improving the customer experience, or growing revenues, for instance, but it can mean whatever the reader interprets it to mean. More specific phrases communicate better. Instead of “drive impact,” we can describe the specific outcome. If doing something will improve the customer experience or grow revenues, it’s better to say that.
Two curious prepositional habits have arisen recently. The first adds them where they aren’t needed, and the second omits them where they are. Build out and deliver on are two of the former:
Finance leaders must build out data repositories and deliver on analytics capabilities.
In these cases, the verbs build and deliver don’t need the preposition because they are implied in the verb. Instead, the sentence can be written:
Finance leaders must build data repositories and deliver analytics capabilities.
Finance leaders must build data repositories and analytics capabilities.
Scale up is a phrase that means to grow or build. Without the preposition, scale can mean several things, including climbing (a mountain) or removing scales from a fish. But it doesn’t mean to grow. And yet we’re seeing an increase in the use of scale like this:
Digital is the only viable solution to scale personalized marketing sufficiently.
Here’s a better way to say it:
Digital is the only viable tool for scaling up personalized marketing.
The word silo in business writing is, for me, the poster child for a battle lost. Here are a couple of examples:
Strategy-setting has become increasingly siloed.
Most companies develop investment plans in silos.
Fifteen years ago, an editor at Forbes told me he’d slit his wrists if he read this word again. Luckily, he retired before he had to. Originally containers for missiles or grain, silos became a metaphor around 30 years ago for disconnected functions in an organization. It seems to have become a dead metaphor around 2016, when usage more than doubled, and the connection with the original meaning was lost. So now we get sentences like, “Our tools cut across functions, geographies, and silos.” But if functions and geographies aren’t silos, what is? One consulting firm website I checked uses silo, silos, and siloes 30,000 times.
On to 2024!
Okay, that was a short list of pet peeves. There are more, but I’ve settled for less. (That should be fewer, but you knew that.) If good people with good ideas didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t be able to help them. Thank you, and happy new year!