Straight between the ize: clarity and shock value in content writing

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Published May 16, 2013 | Written by Jeremy Knight
Can you hear that ghostly thumping? That's George Orwell turning in his grave. Indeed, the man whose
Six Rules championed the values of clear, simple content above all else would be properly posthumously piqued by some of what passes for B2B content writing in this day and age.

In so many cases, simplicity and clarity have given way to jargon, euphemisms and mispunctuation. The hapless readers have become a secondary consideration. They struggle with impenetrable language and potentially catastrophic ambiguity. Let's face it, there's a big difference between “Let's eat, Grandma!” and “Let's eat Grandma!”.

Clutter, not clarity: a clique of offenders

So here are some of the “usual suspects” that incite the writer to forget the primacy of the reader in the content writing relationship!

  • Jargon – Customers “don’t want to decipher your lingo” - even if they're in the same industry. But jargon-filled content is also a strategic risk. It damages SEO because users search using terms that reflect the way they speak, not the way writers jargonise. It drives readers away, because it's boring, lacking in credibility, and dehumanising – at a time when we're trying to make B2B content marketing more human. Doh!
  • Euphemisms – Euphemisms might make you, as a content writer, more comfortable in writing about sensitive, complex or unpalatable topics, but these are precisely the content writing topics that require the most clarity and simplicity of explanation. Euphemisms – even common ones – often require further explanation – which totally defeats the object of using them in the first place.
  • Classicisms/foreignisms– Latin? Greek? French? Consider this: 62% of UK citizens cannot speak any foreign language. Only 9% speak any German (which shares huge basic vocabulary similarities with English). They are your readership. Leave the lingo alone.
  • Acronyms – If they add real convenience value and are generally well known, use them. But do not ever celebrate acronyms, or your audience will wish they were elsewhere.
  • Punctuation anarchy – For goodness' sake, sort it out! (Note the apostrophe...) Punctuation is about making meaning clear and, by extension, avoiding potentially cataclysmic confusion (think of Grandma again). If all else fails, seek guidance
  • Poor proofreading – So, you've finally nailed that killer three-word strapline. You're a proper B2B content marketing person now. But unfortunately, it's in serious danger of turning your readers in Bury off (see photo above). Never, ever forget the importance of asking someone else to check your copy.

John Bull vs. Uncle Sam

Controversially, where we can learn lessons in clarity is from the inherited tradition of simplification that American English embodies so well. Take the iconic U.S. level crossing sign. It was designed by an engineer who knew he had to get a critical message across to someone who was probably a non-native speaker in a split second, or risk the poor immigrant playing gridiron with a cowcatcher. The message? “Stop. Look. Listen.” It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Your content marketing should follow his example. Try out these few simple transatlantic-inspired approaches in your content writing:

  • Get rid of “to” - “Send me an email”, not “Send an email to me.” Anything that gets rid of excess verbiage will probably aid clarity. 
  • Get rid of “to” too! - “Great content writing can help you to influence opinion” becomes “great content writing can help you influence opinion.” Neither form is wrong – but the second is shorter and more direct.
  • Thwart “that” - Get rid of “that” wherever possible. Prolific blogger Brian Solis wrote in a recent post of  “…any business seeking to engage customers in social networks” - not “that is seeking.” If Brian can do without it, so can you!
  • Kill the “question word” – Consider this example headline from the Wall Street Journal blog:New Tool for SEC FCPA Unit?” The question mark does all the asking needed. An initial 'Is this a...' is completely unnecessary and not a little clumsy.
  • Ditch the question tags (“Doesn't he?” “Isn't it”? etc.) - Use “Right?” instead. “Your tax return is due by 30th or you're in trouble, right?” Totally unambiguous.
  • Throw in a “z” now and again – Nothing wakes up a dozing UK reader like a “z.” Use a good English dictionary to confirm where you can get away with the shock value of writing “-ze” rather than “-se”.

     Tell it like it is

In the final analysis, there is no “perfect recipe” for content clarity. Stripped-down (as above) or oratorial, it actually depends largely on who you're speaking to. Clearly, your content shouldn't address wealthy investor types in the same way it addresses guys (and gals) in overalls. But then the great Doug Kessler's brilliantly simple slideshare Crap: The Single Biggest Threat to B2B Content Marketing will make friends as well as enemies with the candour of its language.

And finding friends for your content is what this business is all about.

Image from: Bury Times


Published by Jeremy Knight May 16, 2013
Jeremy Knight