That an impending sales presentation has the capacity to induce more nausea and wobbliness of knee than the Pembroke to Waterford ferry on a particularly choppy day is hardly surprising: with a remit to present your brand, your offering – and yourself – in the most engaging, professional, and ultimately fruitful, light, there is much at stake.
‘Performance nerves’ are normally less of an issue when you’re writing the follow-up ‘thank you’ emails to your attendees, or posting a website feature to promote that new offering. Yet whenever your organisation ‘speaks’ in written form, it represents every bit as much of a pitch as a verbal presentation, ripe for success but also ripe for self-sabotage – arguably more so when grammatical howlers and teeth-clenching jargon are scripted in stone for extended scrutiny. Your message may still make an impact, but it’s unlikely to be one you’d desired.
Here are just five points to consider if you’re concerned to avoid the PR damage inflicted by some ubiquitous linguistic wrecking balls.
- Hold the cheese: Though Drop The Dead Donkey’s* Gus Hedges parodied the archetypal ‘80s business-speak buffoon, we are no less vulnerable to the creep of excruciating buzz-phrases in the present day, diminishing the credibility of our message. A recent, particularly virulent, assault on the language is the use of ‘reach out’ to denote mere ‘communication’: “Dear valued customer. We’re reaching out to advise you that we’re hiking up your broadband bill. Again.” ; “Since our meeting, we’ve reached out to Bill for his thoughts.” Both nonsensical in a business context (unless your business happens to be evangelical preaching) and emitting an odour of Camembert-dipped insincerity, this is one to be stamped ‘AVOID’. In red. If you wish to convey you are contacting, calling or writing to someone (rather than leaning over the side of a boat to drag them back in, when the use would be acceptable) then say just that. You do not deserve to be a Gus Hedges parody; nor do metaphors deserve to be that badly tortured.
(* I’m aware I’m carbon-dating myself with this reference).
- When the spellchecker is not your friend: Homonyms are out to get you. No really, they are, working in league with online spellcheckers whose maxim is ‘anything that’s a real word will do’, regardless of whether it was the word you actually needed. The perils of confusing there, their and they’re are already well-documented, but fear not (or more to the point, fear do) numerous other faux-pas opportunities are lurking. If you bulk-mail your client base promoting a new add-on service that is designed to enhance your current offering, but you describe it as complimentary (rather than complementary) be prepared to deploy some damage limitation when clients expect to receive it for free. Similarly, should you inadvertently describe a new investment opportunity as a discreet (rather than discrete) fund, you may leave prospects wondering exactly what you are proposing they invest into (and whether the subsequent brochure will be sent to them in an unmarked brown envelope). Just two illustrations of the folly of depending upon those dubious red underlines, rather than investing a valuable moment in a quick dictionary shufty, another example being if you’re suffering from a case of….
- ….Mixamalexis: where misuse of a word has become so commonplace that it features in the most highbrow of broadcast reports with nary a quizzical eyebrow raised. For instance, disinterested should mean that you have no biased leanings towards either side of a debate, not that you couldn’t care a teeny rat’s tuchas about what’s being discussed (which, if that were the case, would render you uninterested). Infer (to deduce fact from available evidence) is another much-abused verb, mistakenly used all too often in place of its opposite number imply (to suggest what is fact without stating it directly).
- Me, myself and I: There are times when an overly-zealous attempt to appear formal and ‘correct’ leaves us with a smoking grammatical bullet hole in the right sock, a prime example being the presence of ‘I’ where ‘I’ ought not to tread. Would your follow-up email to a client thank him for ‘meeting with Bill and I today’, or with ‘Bill and me’? Well, it’s a subject/object thing – ‘I’ is always used as a sentence subject. In this case, Bill and you are the sentence objects who were met by your client (the subject), so it should be ‘Bill and me’. An easy way to check is to remove ‘Bill’ from the picture (apologies Bill). Would you say ‘thank you for meeting I today’? Think that sounds silly? You’re right, it does.
- The proof of the pudding (is the proof that is cleared to send or publish without being thoroughly checked) – so don’t be that pudding. Typos, vocabulary misuse, poor punctuation (including comma splice confetti – individual sentences, which should be separated by semi-colons or full stops, breathlessly strung together by commas) subliminally undermine any claims of quality or efficiency you or your organisation are making, and in terms of revenue, that MATTERS. Prospects may well, not unreasonably, assume that the lack of attention to detail that has resulted in poorly-worded or error-ridden copy will similarly characterise your approach to the delivery of your service, and you may never know how much potential business you have lost through those unfavourable judgements being made. A half-hearted or non-existent approach to perfecting your written copy is a gamble that anyone who is serious about positive promotion of their business would be unwise to take.