December 13, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Word Abuse

Word Abuse

When do words lose meaning and what should communicators do when it happens?
This thought first crossed my mind while reading Lake Superior State University’s list of [words and phrases](http://www.lssu.edu/whats_new/articles.php?articleid=1431) that should be banned from the language. About midday on Election Day, as I was reading tweets and reviewing blog posts–people started complaining about the (over)use of the word “change,” and the question occurred to me again–when should you stop using a word or phrase? It happens in virtually every election cycle; the campaigns develop their messages and then repeat, repeat, and repeat, until Election Day. It’s enough to drive anyone who pays a modicum of attention crazy, but of course campaigns are trying to reach those who aren’t paying attention–so they feel the need to continue to chant the same mantra to break through to those who are not listening.
Of course, it happens outside of political campaigns too. In the past, advertising [jingles](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bxjb2UJZ-5I) counted on us not being able to get the tune out of our head. All of the “but wait–call now and you’ll receive (whatever) free” ads repeat their messages. And don’t even get me started on those dreadful [Head On-apply directly to the forehead](http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f_SwD7RveNE) commercials. So, in advertising repetition is an accepted, if not tedious, way of conveying a product message.
But I feel things change considerably when the message is meant to convey a message of considerable weight or concern. Consumerist [recently started](http://consumerist.com/consumer/public-relations/who-is-taking-what-seriously-330821.php) a collection of statements from companies that use the phrase “taking it seriously,” and it even has its own [tag](http://consumerist.com/tag/taking-it-seriously/). The widely read consumer blog refers to the phrase as “disaster ketchup” that PR people use to apply to anything that presents a problem for a company. The end result of the phrase’s overuse is that it seems, well, insincere. Even if the company in question is taking whatever the problem is seriously, the words somehow ring a little hollow.
Can a communicator stay on message without using the exact same words every time? A very talented one can–when trying to get a point across to multiple audiences in multiple settings, having your lines essentially memorized not only keeps you on message, it keeps you out of trouble by misspeaking.
Written statements are another matter–a communicator should be able to craft a company statement avoiding the phrase “taking it seriously.” (Note: “taking it very seriously” is not an acceptable substitute.) We are taught to avoid using clichés, and I would submit that this phrase has become one in company statements. Any PR person who is charged with authoring these types of statements should, on occasion, go back and review the last dozen or so. If this phrase–or any phrase–repeatedly keeps popping up, it’s time to develop a list of alternative phrases that can be used the next time a statement needs to be released. Word has a thesaurus, and there are always [online sources](http://thesaurus.reference.com).
To revisit the original question, words lose meaning when they are used too often, and the best way to avoid this is to constantly be reviewing, tweaking, and working on your own writing style. Think creatively and use writing tools that are at your disposal. Have friends and coworkers critically review pieces that are for public consumption.
I, for one, am taking this very seriously.

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