Monday, January 18, 2010

Corporate spokesmen are not always good role models for writers

Unfortunately, corporate spokesmen are sometimes good sources of bad examples. Especially when they are hurried or under pressure, they may say or write things in ways that we writers should avoid.* For example, when a corporation makes a mistake or faces a problem, the spokesman may intentionally or unintentionally use vague language.


A Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Norwegian Dawn, was temporarily disabled at sea by a power failure. USA Today reported, “The spokesperson says the line still is ‘working toward the cause’ for the power outage.”

That’s a strange choice of words.** What does “working toward the cause” mean in this context? Does it mean the crew is trying to determine the cause of the power failure?

Or does it mean the crew has determined the cause of the power failure and is now trying to physically reach (“work toward”) the component that caused the failure? For example, perhaps the faulty component is hidden behind a thick steel bulkhead, and workers are cutting their way through the bulkhead with a computer-controlled plasma torch. Or perhaps the faulty component is hidden under a thick steel deck, under a 7-ton generator, which the crew is now disassembling and moving.

Or does it mean the crew is now actually repairing the problem? Or trying to prevent the recurrence of the problem?

Or does it mean that executives are trying to figure out how to publicly explain the cause in a non-embarrassing way (having determined that an engineer accidentally turned off the power and nobody on board knew how to turn it back on) and work up their courage before issuing their statement to the press?

You see, that’s what our listeners or readers do when we use vague language: they start guessing. And often, what they guess is much worse than what we were trying not to say.

That is also why we should generally avoid using vague mantras such as drive, issues, and comfortable. These mantras are maniacally popular among immature writers and speakers; they are counterproductive in serious adult prose. They can make you sound infantile, sloppy or evasive.

The Takeaway: Say what you mean – in clear, direct diction. It will make you more credible.

*I say this as a former corporate spokesman. In my time, I said a few things that were even stupider than the example here.

**Typically, when a writer uses the phrase “working toward the cause,” the context is a humanitarian project; for example “working toward the cause of freedom” and “working toward the cause of justice.”

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