Eliminate Heedless Words

Humans are physical beings, as of this writing, with a rich emotional life, so evoking emotions and physical sensations is more powerful than speaking in abstractions.

— Conversational Design

We work with organizations to improve their design and communication practices to better achieve goals like funding scientific research, promoting free knowledge, and creating software to manage major construction projects.

Natural language is how you code for humans. The fastest way to change how people behave together is to change the specific words they use to describe what they make or do. (Orwell got this.) Simply breaking associations can be helpful. When we worked with ProPublica back in the early days, redesigning how they structured their stories began with using language to alienate the team from their working assumptions. Instead of referring to an “Investigation” or a “Deep Dive”, we talked about “Franny” and “Zooey” (this was around the time of J. D. Salinger’s death) for the duration of the project. Yes, it was absurd and nerdy. It also totally worked. We stripped and sanded away the old conceptual paint before applying a fresh coat of meaning.

To design is to make intentional choices. Good design is impossible if your professional choice of words is sloppy and thoughtlessly cribbed from managerial insecurities.

When we run workshops, we maintain a list of forbidden words—the old comfortable dysfunctional verbal habits, empty cans teams take turns kicking down the road, but are too timid to crush outright until we show up to give them permission.

At any point throughout the day, any participant is free to walk up and add another term to the list, henceforth to be banned from further usage. Usually this yields a whole pile of flaccid clichés and sterile abstractions. Popular favorites on the banned words list include:

World-class If you have to say it, you aren’t. This one comes up every time, along with the near synonyms best of breed or renowned.

Engagement Treating all interactions as equal got us into this mess.

Prestigious Really, just a mercy killing at this point.

Solution Describe the specific value you are providing in the specific context.

Innovative Is it really, or should it be? Businesses often overvalue the arbitrarily new.

Sometimes the proffered phases are banished entirely, sometimes just in public facing interfaces and communication. Good (bad?) candidates include any words rendered ineffective as a stinky sponge from rote overuse. I’ve seen people recoil from an utterance of “interdisciplinary” like a kitten from a slice of lemon.

Kitten recoiling

Stop saying that word!

The most frequent mistake businesses make in external communication is repeating abstract brand attributes in their actual copy. Stop doing this, my data-driven changemakers. Lofty abstractions make the people who utter them feel smart and help to paper over unexamined disagreement (What do we really mean when we say “innovative”?). Abstractions scale, because they inflate as with hot air to encompass anything. Being concise, concrete, simple, and direct can be terrifying. You have to commit to something real.

Imagine if Nike had said “We offer aspirational footwear solutions” instead of “Just Do It”.*

And while visual images are terrific for evoking emotions, we live in a multi-modal world of infinite contexts. GIFs are great, but pictures aren’t nearly as portable as words. Avoid painting the inside of your reader’s head a regrettable shade of beige.

Never write “revolutionary”, “accessible”, “exclusive” etc. Talk about the concrete things your service does that embody those adjectives instead. Otherwise you will be functionally indistinguishable from everyone else who trumpets those same phrases. Or, you may halfwittingly allow elevated language to become a Trojan horse for despicable practices on the ground.

Language choices reflect power structures, which always demand scrutiny and vigilance, particularly when they relate to design choices that potentially affect millions or more.

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

— George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

I encourage you to compile your own list of banned words and phrases. Keep an ear out for those that function as thought-terminating clichés, common phrases used to stifle dissent or end arguments. Some I’ve heard are:

“We’re a delivery-driven organization.”

“That’s above my pay grade.”

“You are not being a team player.”

These phrases are dangerous because they will shift any conversation away from an honest discussion about specific facts and desired outcomes, to a ritual performance of assumed consensus.

Do you have any candidates for banning? Add them to the comments below.

*Because everything popular has a dark backstory, the founder of advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy, Dan Wieden credits the inspiration for his “Just Do It” Nike slogan to the last words of murderer Gary Gilmore before being executed by firing squad in 1977.