Because public relations is built on sharing clear and concise ideas, it’s important for communicators to be familiar with the common pitfalls in PR writing that can muddle strong work.
Here are four prominent “killers of clarity” that professionals should look out for, along with hints about their identity and how to recognize them. If they’re attacking your writing, then hit your delete key and fill the vacated spaces with reader-friendly phrases, sentences, and paragraphs:
1. Euphemism — A euphemism is an innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be offensive or suggest something unpleasant. However, euphemisms also make your writing less accurate and honest, like when you say “He passed away” instead of “He died” or “She was downsized” in place of “She was fired.”
Euphemisms also often feature language that fuzzes the facts, too; a statement like “The amount of goodwill carried on the balance sheet, when compared to total assets, is high” is vague compared with “We have too much goodwill on our balance sheet compared to ready cash and assured receivables.” Say it plain and you’ll be viewed more credibly.
2. Gobbledygook — This refers to speech or any other form language that is nonsense (gibberish, jibber-jabber) or appears to be nonsense: “Marketing driven by strategic thinking, precision targeting and response building creativity… plus, performance enhanced through process efficiency, campaign management tools, and cost saving quality initiatives… XYZ impacts our clients’ marketing success from both the topline and the bottom line.” (This excerpt is from an actual marketing agency brochure, name deleted to protect the guilty individual.)
If you write like this, then you’re cheating yourself and your employer or client.
3. Hyperbole — Hyperboles are statements or words of exaggeration. In poetry, they can evoke strong feelings and create strong impressions. In PR prose, though, hyperboles make a writer untrustworthy: “The 5-step data evolution process begins with data atomization, which breaks down IT data, regardless of its source, to a granular level. It then enriches the data with identity management, relationship analysis, purification, and historicity.”
Can you get a clear picture from that sentence of facts and information? Know what you’re talking about before you try to explain it to others.
4. Jargon — Jargon refers to words used in a context that can only be fully understood by experts on a subject. The context is usually an occupation (i.e., trade, profession or academic field), but any “in-group” may have jargon. Consider this conversation:
- “What’s your business?” “I’m a PR consultant.” “What do you do?” “I work with clients to develop strategic two-way symmetrical messages driven by critical theories such as cognitive dissonance, third-party endorsement, dominant coalition, and relationship management.”
Would this mean anything to a non-PR pro? No. People want simple, not complex, language.
These four “killers of clarity” destroy logic, style, content, and meaning. In the process, they undermine your goals make you less trustworthy as a writer. Eliminate them before their actions end up undermining your great ideas.
Find more articles on writing and storytelling in the February issue of Strategies & Tactics.
Don Bates, APR, Fellow PRSA, conducts public and private PR-writing workshops in the United States and abroad. He also teaches writing at New York University, and is a senior counselor on PR-agency management and M&A for Gould Partners. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org