Innovate … optimize … outcomes … metrics. Stop me if you’ve heard these words occasionally in the business world. According to David Meerman Scott, marketing speaker and author of marketing blog Web Ink Now, these words suck. Or, to paraphrase him, they are so overused in press releases that they have become meaningless. He doesn’t answer the question of why are they so overused in press releases, but the answer is obvious: because these words are the lingua franca of today’s corporatespeak.
In a recent study, “Top Gobbledygook phrases used in 2008,” David used a tool to analyze 711,123 press releases from 2008 and whittled down 325 words/phrases to a Top 25. I agree with a lot of these selections, but unlike his piece, I will tell you exactly why a certain word sucks or needs more context to be meaningful.
Let’s look at some of his Top 25 examples of “releasespeak” and evaluate what’s really going on:
Innovate — This one’s easy. The word innovate suggests that you are doing something nobody else is doing, creating a new way. The problem is that it doesn’t say what you are doing. Its lack of specificity coupled with its overuse in North American press releases (51,390 uses, #1 in the stats) makes it a Mother of Words To Avoid. If you’re going to use it, at least say how you’re going to innovate with product x or service y.
Optimize – Working for an SEO (search engine optimization) firm, I must admit I am guilty of overusing this word. Not in press releases, but in my daily communications with colleagues and clients. It essentially means you will make something the best it can possibly be (coming from the Latin optimus). The word is also as vague as a stonewalling NFL general manager around draft day. The rub with this word is that it becomes a lazy substitute for just about anything: optimize your press release, blog post, website, etc. In some cases, describing in detail what you’re going to do is better: make a press release more visible to search engines, for example. Take the Pepsi challenge and see how long you can go without using this word.
Focused on – The problem with this phrase is simply that it’s passive/indirect and consequently does not carry much meaning. Company X is focused on growing 200% in 2009. It is shorter and stronger to say, Our company aims to grow 200% …
120/110 percent – Cliches. I actually thought 110% was more common but what do I know? Saying 100% should be enough if you want your words to speak for themselves. The overuse could earn them a repetitive stress injury from which there is no chance of recovering. These phrases are also the numerical equivalent of saying more unique–if something is unique, it is by definition singular and unlike anything else. In the same way, there is no need or way to go beyond perfection, which is what 100% represents.
Scalability – This noun is a classic example of obfuscation. It is clearer to say that a product or service can be adapted for many sizes/scales, perhaps expandable or versatile. Even broad range suffices. Scalability sounds like a biological term for the capacity of a fish to grow new scales.
Outcomes — A fancy way to say results.
Metrics – A fancy way to say stats or measurements. Was it MLB’s sabermetrics that made this word popular? Once upon a time, I thought metrics referred only to meters, liters and grams.
Leverage – Not clear if this word is being included as a noun or a verb. Tired verb example: We are going to leverage this market position to earn greater 3rd-quarter profits. Many words could be substituted here, from use to apply to take advantage of, although the last term is less economical.
Robust and flexible — It seems like nitpicking to include these words. Admittedly, they are overused, but are they actually overused to the point of meaninglessness? They are healthy adjectives, serving merely to modify nouns. As long as these words are used as accurate describers, calling them gobbledygook is a stretch.
Value added — Maybe my favorite , value-added is today’s trendy word for bonus, extra, supplemental … Its inclusion represents the value-added final entry in this rundown.
Do you have any other examples of prominent releasespeak that bothers you? Better suggestions for working around the gobbledygook? Please add your comments.
If you are interested in more of my writing tips, see 8 Ways to Clean Up Your Online Copy, What’s Your Style? and an interview about SEO writing with Daiv Whaley, Fathom writer and senior account executive.
Tip of the hat to colleague Wes Stump for alerting me to the blog post.
Photo courtesy of Jasoon via Flickr.