Mixed Messages: How Corporate Writers Can Kill Their Darlings

1. Mixed Messenger

What Pickup Artists and Corporate Jargon have in Common

What would you think of a guy with hair plugs, a spray tan, and two bluetooth earpieces jutting out from his face like tusks? How about a man who walks into the club with a fur hat, black feather boa, and chains dangling across his pre-torn jeans? What about the guy posing with a gun and a tiger in his two seat sports car? Does it seem like they’re compensating for something?

Everyone wants to stand out, but someone who peacocks too much looks like they’re using their decorations to substitute for a personality. A pickup artist buried under pieces of flare tells the world there’s nothing really there. When a man walks into a bar with his head lost in a nest of fashion scarves everybody laughs behind his back, but when a company weighs down their job postings with unnecessary jargon no one challenges them.

There comes a time when you have to tell your friend that people are embarrassed to be seen with him, that he should really leave his spiked cap and star-shaped shades at home, and let people meet the real him. Well corporate writers, its time you stop hiding under jargon and say what you really mean.

What Business Writers Can Learn From Creative Ones

Business writing isn’t narrative writing. It has its own style. Sentences should be short, simple, and action oriented. Every business has its share of unavoidable technical terms, but so many pile them on to inflate their importance. This misappropriation of language can make these words sound hollow, even to the target audience.

The reader shouldn’t have to simplify a mission statement like a fraction. A line like: Our growth strategy is to utilize content to engage in a unified multichannel customer experience, becomes We use advertising to sell things to people. That doesn’t sound all that remarkable.

This is an area where business could benefit from artists. Creatives could write clearer copy because they know how to kill their darlings.

In narrative writing darlings are the flowery phrases that bog down stories. They appear when the narrative slows down so the author can describe every article of clothing their characters are wearing, every feature on their faces, and every plant on their horizon. Editors call these poetic excursions ‘purple prose.’

Darlings can be sneaky. They take the form of the needlessly complex words and favorite sayings the author keeps repeating. First time writers pile on their darlings to make themselves sound more intelligent.

The corporate world has its own darlings. Check out any corporate jargon generator to see a slew of them. Here are the offenders I keep spoting all the time:


I see a lot of tautology (two words or phrases that mean the same thing) in corporate job postings, phrases like:

  • forward-looking positive people
  • results-oriented outcome driven employee
  • a great culture with a positive environment

Pick one phrase. Cut the padding. Respect your reader’s time.

Avoid repeating the same words. Everybody wants the world to know about their ‘engaging content’ but if a paragraph uses the word “engage” more times than Captain Picard, you have a redundancy issue. This is where the thesaurus could come in handy. I don’t want my books to just be engaging I want them to be gripping, absorbing, and captivating.

2. A Call From Clarity

Empty Phrases

Many job postings favor vague buzz terms instead of explicit ones. Job seekers shouldn’t have to look at the qualifications to get an idea of what they’d be doing. Potential clients shouldn’t lose your message in the translation. Social media users shouldn’t wonder who you’re talking to. Employees shouldn’t have to ask around the office to interpret your directions.

The Huffington Post had an excellent article on how phrases like synergy and paradigm shift have been so overused they’ve become “muddled and meaningless.”

I’ve listened to my share of motivational speakers. Many used phrases that sounded authoritative with no regard for their meaning. One of them told a room full of security guards we needed to “drink the Kool-Aid.”

The speaker had no idea why we were scoffing. If you evoke the Jonestown Massacre to convince employees to go along with a directive, they have every right to question it.

It’s time to put these motivational platitudes out to pasture. Rather than reach for the low-hanging fruit through your window of opportunity, consider dumping these stock phrases entirely. All this viral bleeding-edge language needs to be quarantined outside the box.

Broad statements should lead to finer details. The more obtuse your language is the less people will trust it. You don’t want to come across like a student writing an abstract essay, trying to hit all the points they think the teacher’s looking for. Your language will become all encompassing. You’ll say nothing by trying to say everything.


Remember that scene in the Matrix: Reloaded where Neo meets the Architect in the room with all of the TVs? In order to sound intelligent, the Architect used bloated sentences filled with adverbs.

The Architect raised his eyebrow. “Although the process has altered your consciousness, you remain irrevocably human. Ergo, some of my answers you will understand, and some of them you will not. Concordantly, while your first question may be the most pertinent, you may or may not realize it is also the most irrelevant.”

This is where the movie lost a lot of people (full disclosure: I remain a Matrix apologist).

There are a lot of ‘Architects’ writing on the net, laying on the adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. A wordy sentence isn’t a smarter sentence. Don’t value form over function. Don’t sacrifice clarity in the name of speaking with authority.


Everyone pads their resumé with inflated job titles. I was never a cashier. I was a customer service specialist. I was never a janitor. I was a facilities maintenance technician. I was never a guard. I was a security enforcement officer.

The problem is these exaggerations have infiltrated the corporate vocabulary. No one has skills anymore, they have ‘core competencies.’ Companies have shut down all their departments and replaced them with an ‘ecosystem.’ There are no more industries, only ‘verticals.’ Corporations have lost control. They have to resort to ‘leverage’ instead.

When we favor the most complicated expression to make our point, we run the risk of sounding annoying and pretentious.

3. Now He Gets It

Don’t Make Reading Comprehension a Challenge

Employees should have business literacy, but documents written entirely in jargon are a chore to read. If a company wants to make their offices more efficient they should stop slowing down reading comprehension. Corporate statements should be clear.

Technical terms have their place in internal documents, but when a company shares their services on social media the jargon has to go. Your front facing website should be understandable. Users shouldn’t have to reread every sentence to comprehend your intent. If your mission statement could be written with buzzword magnetic poetry, it’s too vague.

When the competition talks gibberish, you should stand out with specifics. When they inflate their importance with taxing text, you should get by on your merits. Show you have style and the substance to back it up. Corporations can benefit from creatives, because creative writers kill their darlings all the time.

11 thoughts on “Mixed Messages: How Corporate Writers Can Kill Their Darlings”

  1. I agree with you on many of the things you said. When reading job applications, I skip over the first third, even the skills and qualifications and really only read the specific job functions. I don’t know how many times I’ve read, “We’re looking for motivated people” or something like that and you’re right, there is much redundancy. And who lists that as a qualification anyway? Lol, I would assume all employers want motivated employees. Does an employer ever say they are looking for lazy, un-motivated employees who half-ass everything?

    1. I know exactly what you mean.It makes you wonder if these employers truly believe they have to specify ‘positive’ or they’ll get a bunch of gloomy Gusses.

      The sad thing is these redundancies force readers to skim. They’re pushing potential applicants away in an effort to draw them in.

  2. Ugh, I hate documents written in Corporatese. I would love to see more companies speak directly to me, not pussyfoot around because they want to say nothing while using every word imaginable in the dictionary.

    I said it earlier today, and I’m saying it again: One sounds smarter when one writes clearly and concisely, not when one scribbles meandering prose burdened by rarely-used or misused words.

    Great post as ever, Drew. 🙂

    1. Thank you, kindly. I know this one is a little outside of my niche. I’m glad a few folks are into it.

      I’ve been told it’s easy to BS your way through writing copy, but writing good copy is a challenge.

  3. Drew, you are right where my mind has been all day. I’m an intelligent guy, and I DO understand the jargon — which is exactly why it makes me laugh. I am one who will step into a pretentious (good word), jargon-filled conversation where someone has been posturing this way for a good while and say, “Now, why do you choose to say ‘leverage’ instead of ‘use’?”

    We have lots of fine art museums in and around Boston. I go to them sometimes, and I see people clustered around a giant white canvas with grass stuck to it and a small blob of what looks like poop on a corner; and they all hold their chins and look at it sagaciously and nod their heads and say, “Mmmmm.” But it all seems like “The Emperor’s New Clothes” to me. Something goes on in people’s minds that says, “This is in an art museum. The price to buy says $1,000,000. So if I want to seem hip and knowledgeable, I’d better act like I get it, like all these other people standing here seem to.”

    I feel much the same way about current corporate jargon.

    Actually, of late, I’ve felt that way even just about the non-jargon ways people speak on social media sites, like when someone posts on Twitter: “The voice of a leader is a sweet song in spring! #leadership” and they get 178 RT or Favorites. Really? That saying meant something deep, personal and truly motivational to 178 people? Or was it really that the person who doled it out used auto-bot programs to drum up 300,000 Followers, and so people think, “Goodness me, this person has 300,000 Followers; if I want to be in with the Emperor, I’d better act like what they said is deep and amazing, and maybe they’ll RT me.”

    Anyway, thanks for telling it like it is. We need more of that in the world. Let’s just be people talking to one another.

  4. Really glad to read this. The jargon is even more bizarre when it turns up in job ads that also claim that “the ideal candidate will have strong written and oral communication skills.” At one point I ended up writing a story using text from a job application form I was filling out at the time, and a year or so on it’s difficult to separate the real stuff from the parody: http://www.wattpad.com/44173925-red-herring-whisper-down-the-lane .

    By the way, I think you’ve got a typo in here. Unless you really do want your books to be griping as well as absorbing. 😉

      1. Ha! I didn’t realise anyone else had done that. Also, spookily, I was just looking up the King in Yellow. I like how many elements of the mythos you managed to work in alongside the management speak.

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