Writer Be Nimble: Avoiding Clichés and Buzzwords

Nim – ble  adj. 1. Quick, light, or agile in movement or action. Ex: nimble fingers. 2. Quick, clever, and acute in devising and understanding. Ex: nimble wits. SYNONYMS: Brisk, facile, spry. ANTONYMS: Slow, inept, dull-witted.

The business world is unlikely to run out of clichés, euphemisms and buzzwords anytime soon. Sure, your sharp eye spots blatant examples – “rightsizing” – and long before your CEO shows up to the all-employee meeting, you’ve redlined it and penned a more humane way to discuss what today’s economy is doing to your company.

From “reengineering” to “economies of scale” and, my favorite, “delayering,” which sounds like removing excess frosting from a cake, you’ve heard them all, right?

What about “nimble”? Or its cousins “entrepreneurial” and “efficient”?

Now, hold on, I hear you object, nimbleness is a good thing. Why The Economist frequently resorts to these phrases to honor companies that have held their own through the Great Recession: “The firm combines the heft of a big company with the scrappiness of a start-up.”

Okay, they were writing about Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, you continue, but, hey, “nimble” means quick and clever and implies we’re fit to navigate the shark-infested waters of the world economy.

Time to Nimbly Do a Reality Check

“Nimble” has become a trend-word, along with “entrepreneurial,” “efficiency,” and “productivity.” These clichés are now up there with “robust,” which used to apply to rosy-cheeked, bouncing babies, then became a popular descriptor for the tech industry, and now is appended to everything from cupcakes to car engines, though probably not the economy. “Quality” was another that lost its essence from overuse abuse.

The problem with trendy words is that when they become ubiquitous, your message loses all meaning.

Effective communicators understand messaging is a two-way deal – it’s not just what the CEO wants to say (“No matter how big our company gets, we’re going to remain nimble and entrepreneurial.”), but what it means to the audience.

If you’ve been finding yourself writing about how nimble and entrepreneurial your company is these days, here are a few ways to check that your messaging has real meaning:

Is the company nimble?
Face it, not every company can be nimble and entrepreneurial, especially ones with diverse product lines, tens of thousands of employees, and operations that cross state lines and international borders. Because “nimble” is such a buzzword – and impresses Wall Street – almost every company that’s publicly traded is calling itself “nimble and entrepreneurial.” But, is your company really nimble or is it wishful thinking? Remember, there’s nothing wrong with being strategic or cautious in the current economic environment. And companies that are visionary and maverick will do pretty well, too. Perhaps it’s just a matter of stepping spryly away from the cliché and finding a more apt, unique modifier to distinguish your company.

If the company is nimble, how is it nimble?
If you’ve done your reality check and your company passes, then, congratulations. Just know that a lot of companies out there are claiming to have exactly the same brand attributes as you. You can still call yourself nimble, but now it’s time to distinguish yourself from the “nimble” hordes with some specifics. “Nimble” has two definitions, which one are you? Are you both? How are you nimble? How does your nimbleness differentiate your brand from its competitors?

What is the company really trying to communicate?
Be careful to avoid using “nimble” and “entrepreneurial” as euphemisms for something more serious, such as layoffs. As with euphemisms from the recent past – “reorg,” “consolidation” and “streamlining” – the true nature of the company’s actions will become obvious to your audience and the news media. It’s far better to address tough issues head on, share what you can (legally, responsibly and respectfully), and promise to keep your audience informed as soon as you know more.

What does “nimble” mean to employees and investors?
Before letting your CEO message, it’s important to understand how the message will be received by the audience. To some employees, “nimble” may be positive; perhaps they’ve been struggling with too many layers of hierarchy between the people who do the work and the people who make decisions about the work. Being more “efficient” may mean there’s a greater chance they’ll be listened to. Or, on the negative side, it may feel like management is about to lay off more employees, leaving fewer people to cover the workload. As for the pundits on Wall Street and CNBC, they’re more likely to be impressed by a company’s nimbleness if they have specifics: How is the company planning to be more nimble? Why? By when? And how will it measure the improvements?

Reality checks are crucial when messaging. Not only do they help you to know your audience, they steer you away from risky clichés. After all, use a buzzword like “nimble” when no one thinks it’s accurate, and the company may gain a reputation for being quite the opposite.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Nimble thought can jump both sea and land.”
~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 44