By Katherine Gotthardt
Language is complex. Words have definitions, connotations, history and context. No wonder it’s so easy to misrepresent something or someone in writing – and no wonder this could make a huge impact on your business. Whether you’re writing an email, a press release, a report or a social media blurb, your ability to choose the right word is a necessity in business and everyday life. Here are three tips to help you say what you mean and avoid miscommunicating.
Remember that old tool, the dictionary? Use it to look up definitions on a regular basis. You could find upon reading a word’s definition that what you think you’re saying isn’t what you’re saying at all – which is normal. Our own word usage develops and changes as a result of our experiences, education, age and personalities. It’s easy to overlook what a word was intended to mean at its basic level.
While you’re looking up definitions, pay attention to primary, secondary and subsequent meanings of the same word. Your usage might match the third or fourth entry, but if it’s that far removed from the most common meaning, depending on your audience, your intent could be misconstrued.
While using definitions to hone your message is useful, it’s usually not enough on its own. Your audience isn’t necessarily made up of linguists, lexophiles or mind readers. Help them out by giving details and examples. For instance, if you’re trying to tell your potential clients your business can be found on social media, list the channels. Social media can mean anything from blogs, to Tumblr, to Facebook and beyond, so be specific.
Another way to ensure clarity is to note what you’re not saying. For example, we’re saying definitions alone shouldn’t dictate the words you choose, but we’re not saying to undermine the importance of definitions.
Have you ever heard the expression “Content is king, but context is queen”? In the word world, this means words take on meaning according to their association with other words. Sometimes the base definition is overridden entirely by context. For example, the first, most common definitions of “business” are “a person’s regular occupation” and “the practice of making one’s living by engaging in commerce.” But if we say, “It’s none of your business,” the rest of the sentence makes “business” communicate something more metaphorical.
Sometimes the mere order of words morphs meaning. Look at the difference between, “I’m writing just one email,” and “I’m just writing one email.” The second version could be interpreted as exasperation, as in, “I’m just writing ONE email! Sheesh!” (And while we’re looking at “ONE,” consider how the use of CAPS CHANGES EVERYTHING, as does the use of punctuation!)
You might have come to the end of this article thinking you’ve been under-thinking word choice and that inaccurate wording might account for undesirable, past reactions to your writing. If this sounds like you, then good. It means in the future, you’ll be more cognizant of how you craft your messages. And that means you’re more likely to get ahead in your business and career.
Serving private, government and nonprofit sectors, All Things Writing is a content development and content marketing company on a mission to help clients shine online and in print. They may be reached at [email protected].
“Your Words Mean Business” provides insights and tips to business owners, organizations and professionals seeking to better their performance and increase their bottom line through sharpening written communication skills.