On the front line against the jargonauts

I think I speak for many copywriters when I say that it sometimes feels as if we’re losing the war of words.

(Sorry for starting on a bit of a downer, but that’s kind of my thing.)

Long-copy ads are rare these days. Cheap ‘content’ is everywhere. And don’t get me started on f???ing emojis.

But these are trifling matters, relatively speaking. I think the biggest enemy of our trade – and those of you who know me even slightly won’t be surprised to hear this – is corporate jargon.

Or ‘bollocks’, to use my preferred term for it.

Yes, yes, I know, this is a topic that’s been done to death, so I won’t bore/infuriate you with another list of excruciating buzzwords. But the fact is: this problem is not going away.

If anything, corpspeak is becoming ever more pervasive. It’s spreading and metastasising like some colourless, soporific tumour. Once the preserve of management theorists – bless their possibly robotic hearts – corporate jargon is now undeniably mainstream.

To wit, sportspeople now routinely talk about streamlining processes and meeting KPIs and managing controllables. So I think it’s fair to say that we’re at the far right of the buzzword adoption curve.

The buzzword adoption curve © Ryan Wallman

The buzzword adoption curve © Ryan Wallman

For many people, the response to all this is: so what?

‘Ryan,’ they probably think to themselves after my fifth unhinged rant of the day, ‘give it a rest, will you? Does it really matter if people want to sound like pseudo-intellectual drones?’

Fair enough. But you and I know that corporate jargon is not (just) a silly source of amusement. It corrupts communication and it inhibits clear thinking.

This point was made recently by the wonderful Australian author, speechwriter and gobbledygook-slayer, Don Watson, who wrote:

‘One can’t think in the fog that management jargon deliberately creates. One can’t know in it. Politics needs thought and language equally. Civil society does.’

We’ve all experienced the fog that he refers to. You need only read a big company’s website or a CEO’s memo to appreciate the obfuscatory nature of this kind of language.

But obfuscation is only part of the problem. The worst aspect of corporate jargon, I think, is its dehumanising effect. For evidence, look no further than the fact that, in the parlance of modern business, people are not even people. They are ‘resources’ or ‘talent’ or (ugh) ‘capital’.

And this gets to the nub of the problem for you and me. Because fundamentally, copywriting relies on understanding people and using language that connects with people.

At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, David Ogilvy knew this. Which is why he described jargon words as the ‘hallmarks of a pretentious ass’. (Tell us what you really think, David.)

I believe that copywriters have an important role in fighting the scourge of corporate jargon. And at the very least, we have an obligation to prevent something like this ad from ever happening again.

Engage ad

Ryan Wallman is Head of Copy at Wellmark, a creative agency with specialist expertise in healthcare communications. He is a medical graduate with a Master of Marketing from Melbourne Business School. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter.


5th February 2016

The Word Department

Bloody hell, that ad really does make your lunch come back.

Cracking article though.

8th February 2016

Ryan Wallman

Isn’t it awful?

And thanks very much for your kind comment.

25th February 2016

Mel Fenson

Oh. I thought the surfing ad was one that you’d mocked up like the (perfect) Buzzword Adoption Curve? So it’s real? Eeeewww.

Love this article and you make some fabulous points.

Just one thing. You forgot that corporate people (oxymoron?) can also be ‘dead wood’.

I’d use an emoji at this point as shorthand to show that of course I don’t agree that people can be referred to as ‘dead wood’ and what a sad indictment of our society that term is…but you hate emojis and I want to seem cool.

And now I really want to use another emoji to show that I’m crying with laughter and I don’t want anyone to take me seriously, but see above for emoji hatred.

I almost can’t leave without doing a smiley face? Ok I’m gone

25th February 2016

Ryan Wallman

Thank you, Mel – I’m glad you liked it.

Oh yes, I’m afraid to say the ad is real.

And I wasn’t joking when I said don’t get me started on emojis. I’ll end up offending someone or injuring myself.

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