Corporately craptastic content is one of the most frustrating things to deal with as a copywriter. Especially when it comes from our clients.

Otherwise known as marketese or promotional language, it’s frequently found coming out of internal marketing departments and corporations. It permeates a company’s image by appearing in public places such as brochures and websites, but usually suffers from a deeper problem that prevents people from writing clearly, like convoluted brand guidelines or too many stakeholders giving input on a piece.

Promotional language should never be used. Fortunately, getting rid of it isn’t too difficult if you can do two things: recognize it, and convince your clients that getting rid of it is the right move.

Dilbert Cloud Computing Comic

How to Recognize It

Promotional language is like a sickness: it must be diagnosed before it can be cured.

In all cases, it can be recognized by identifying one or more of the following symptoms:

  • The use of complex words and phrasing where simple, plain language would suffice.
  • Lots of fluff that could be cut without sacrificing quality
  • A habit of talking around the point
  • The use of internal jargon, industry slang, and undefined acronyms

Here are a few examples of corporate language.

The first from a healthcare company:

“CareCore National‘s business intelligence ensures our health plan clients the highest reduction in unnecessary utilization, significant financial outcomes and improved quality. Our rigorous approach to managing benefits focuses on streamlining patient care, improving quality and reducing cost.”

This one is from Comcast:

“In 2009, we established our first External Assessment Panel (EAP) to provide an independent review of ExxonMobil’s corporate citizenship public reporting, including the materiality analysis process, content, clarity, and relevance. The panel’s comments on both the 2008 and 2009 Corporate Citizenship Reports have been used to enhance our external reporting.”

An effort to improve clarity, you say? Ha! Ha! How amusing.

Here are some other samples of plain language rewrites and crimes against clarity for your further perusal.

Why Does It Exist?

If that question stumps you, you’re in good company.

Unlike known diseases, there is no medical explanation for the existence of promotional language. The best diagnosis we can make is an educated guess.

One hypothesis states that promotional language exists because people don’t take the time to write better. “If I had more time I would write a shorter letter,” once stated someone famous and literary. The same concept applies to all kinds of writing.

Secondly, there is the issue of precedent. If promotional language is found in other sectors of an industry, writers that come after may simply imitate the style. Perhaps they think it sounds official if they use confusing words and complex sentence structure. All it takes is one bad apple to spoil the bunch, etc.

Another reason is that empty pages look bad, and as a recourse copywriters fill the space with fluff.

Copywriters the world over are praying for the speedy demise of promotional language. Perhaps it will happen one day soon.

For now, however, we are stuck dealing with it, so let’s start by taking a look at one study that proves that plain language has actually improved readability, and move on to how to deal with it when it comes from our clients.

How Users Read on the Web

It’s even more important when writing for the internet to avoid promotional language because of how users read on the web: instead of reading, users “scan the page”. It seems obvious, but many people don’t realize that the dense, convoluted paragraphs created using promotional language have even less a chance of being read than usual.

Jakob Nielsen did a great user study on promotional language’s relation to usability. A paragraph of promotional language, used as the control group, was compared to a scannable layout, concise text, objective language, and a combined version of the three. Usability was improved in all versions from the control text, from 27% – 58%. Most remarkably, however, was that in the combined version, measured usability increased by 124%.

He concluded with the following:

“Our conjecture to explain this finding is that promotional language imposes a cognitive burden on users who have to spend resources on filtering out the hyperbole to get at the facts. When people read a paragraph that starts “Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions,” their first reaction is no, it’s not, and this thought slows them down and distracts them from using the site.”

Dealing with Corporately Craptastic Clients

Bird's eye view of Mont Blanc

You probably already know how hard this kind of serenity is to find when working with stubborn clients.

Now down to the sticky business: what do you do when your clients give you content corrupted by promotional language?

First off, this is a delicate situation, so approach with caution. Oftentimes, stubborn clients will stick to their crappy content and not budge when you suggest changing it to something more readable or easy to understand. However, for sake of your readers, you absolutely must try.

Here are a few tips that will help you handle stubborn clients:

  1. Don’t insult them. Your clients spent time putting together those paragraphs that make you cringe. The last thing you want to do is offend them. That would just make them even more stubborn.
  2. Be reasonable. Begin by explaining what we’ve covered in this article: that marketese is less readable, bad for usability, confusing for new readers, and all-around frustrating.
  3. Be persuasive. With some practice you will soon be able to convince any client why your version is better, as long as you can present your case without any obstacles in your way (i.e., an intermediary employee that limits your direct contact with the writer of the problematic marketese).
  4. Immediately offer an alternative. Show clearly, by contrasting your new plain language version with the old corporately craptastic version, how much easier your version is to understand. In most cases, your new version will be shorter as well as easier to understand, which is an exceptional benefit for web users with their notoriously short attention spans.
  5. Be willing to compromise. I know, I know, you have moral standards and integrity, bla bla bla. Listen: if you refuse to compromise in this kind of situation, you shouldn’t be working with clients in the first place. In the end, the final version will be better than the one you started with and you’re just going to have to live with that if your clients are your first priority. If they’re not, I hope your resume is up to date because you’ll have to find a new job.
  6. Focus on the positive. People are less inclined to hear what you have to say when they feel they are under attack. Try to be objective, and start out by telling them what you like about their work. The point they are trying to make is probably good, but perhaps it could be improved. Reassure your clients that you’re on their side and they will be more open suggestion.

Going Further

Close the gap between marketese and clear copy for the sake of users everywhere!

Convincing clients to see your side of things can be trying, but you owe it to your users (not to mention the English language) to give the effort.

Please share your cringe-worthy examples of corporately craptastic content in the comments!

2 Comments

  1. Cameron on | Reply

    Brevity is tough, eh?

    Cheers to you all for making an effort to move towards a more readable web!

    • Matt Herron on | Reply

      Absolutely. Brevity is a full time job! Thanks for the nice words.

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