By Neil Taylor
If you’re reading International Accounting Bulletin, you’re probably a numbers person.
I’m not; I’m a writer. Rishi Sunak would be disappointed to learn that I dropped maths as soon as humanly possible. Yet now, as a grown up, I find myself wishing I’d hadn’t tuned it out at school.
I run a business, which demands a modicum of numeracy. And as a team of business writers, me and my colleagues have to write a lot about money – our clients are global banks, big accountancy firms, finance houses, and even the regulator. So we spend hours trying to get our heads round financial concepts so we can explain them to other people who struggle.
I’ve needed to get to grips with numbers. But numbers people need to get to grips with words too.
Why words count
You need words to express any business idea. And the language of money is surprisingly vivid – there are ‘crashes’, ‘crunches’, the occasional ‘big bang’. They bring a potentially boring subject to life.
Just as this happens in business, it happens in the rest of our lives. Every year, the dictionaries add in new words that capture a new concept, or the spirit of the age: the public voted ‘goblin mode’ as the word of last year. The idea of slobbing about isn’t new, but ‘goblin mode’ paints a neat little picture.
The business words on the rise
At Schwa, we also keep an eye out for new terms bubbling up in the tens of thousands of words of websites, policies and speeches we rewrite for financial clients every year, and predict the ones most likely to take hold.
We found ‘mutuality’ in the words of academics and CEOs alike. It captures a shift in the dynamics of the workplace, especially, post-Covid, where a good work relationship is a win-win for the employer and the employee, rather than it all being in the company’s favour. It’s not a new word, but it’s being used to capture a new mood.
‘Hypergrowth’ wasn’t far behind. Not surprisingly, it’s about the stage in a company’s development when it grows really fast – especially in a recession where your competitors are getting wiped out. We find businesspeople love words with a pseudo-scientific edge. Like goblin mode, it takes a simple idea, and makes it a little more dramatic.
Third went to ‘sustainovation’ – innovating, but in a sustainable way, obvs. This time a made-up word saves you a few syllables, and makes it sound like you’ve come up with a whole new concept.
So should you be using these words?
There’s a danger that if you start peppering your every presentation with ‘mutuality’, you’ll just sound like you’re jumping on the latest bandwagon. And more importantly, as soon as you hear anything too much, it starts to lose its power.
A client told me once about their internal campaign for ‘operational excellence’. After banging on about it for six months, they looked at all their internal measures and found it hadn’t made any difference. Except in one team; they’d really improved. Why? The person running it had a weekly meeting called ‘Doing everyday things better’. She was the only person who translated the buzzwords into everyday language, and the only person whose team did anything differently.
That story encapsulates one of our top writing tips. Here are three of them.
1- Write more like you speak
People are busy. There’s lots of evidence that using everyday language makes things quicker and easier for your readers, and actually makes you sound more confident.
A tiny example: have a look at an article from the Financial Times or The Economist, and notice that often they don’t use ‘increase’ or ‘decrease’ – they use ‘go up’ and ‘go down’ just as much. But those publications don’t feel childish; they feel straightforward and even authoritative.
2- Beware ‘the curse of knowledge’
This is a phenomenon studied by scientist Steven Pinker. He finds the when you become an expert in something (like accounting), you forget what it’s like not to be an expert. That means your overestimate how much your audience knows – and cares – about your subject. So you write too much and use jargon your audience doesn’t get. He finds even when we’re writing to peers, we still misjudge their knowledge and interest.
3- Paint a picture
Pictures are the things most likely to stick in our memories. That’s why a ‘crash’ or a ‘crunch’ is so effective. So paint a picture with your words, or tell a story, or find a metaphor that helps you explain your subject.
Do those three things, and you won’t need the buzzwords. And because good communicators are much more likely to progress, they might help your career too.