Say It, Don’t Spray It

“This memo provides the operational considerations for . . . ” Why is technical writing — or, for that matter, most business writing — so turgid? What does this sentence even mean?

Why do people use fancy words when plain ones would do the job? Perhaps it goes back to the days when we were in English class and had to submit a “5 page paper.” More effort went into fluffing up 4 pages into 5 than into writing the darn thing in the first place. When Microsoft Word came out with “one-point-two spacing” the news spread like wildfire around campuses — this was before Twitter and even e-mail. Even worse than using overly fancy words, though, is using fancy words that actually convey the wrong meaning. Our language has many subtleties, and using words as exact synonyms just because they have more syllables weakens the language over time.

Here are my top five pet peeves. Each of them falls into a different category, but all are irritating!

  1. “Utilize” means to use something for a purpose other than what its maker intended. For example, “We utilized the teapot as a gas-can.” But you hear people say “utilize” for “use” … why? Because you get two more syllables of airtime.
  2. I Am A Job Title. In German, all nouns are capitalized. In English, they’re not. Nuff said? I’m proud to be a marketing communications manager. Will I get a raise if I’m a Marketing Communications Manager?
  3. A “dialogue” is actually a formal, structured conversation, and has its roots in literary traditions. If you’re talking to your boss or your kids about something, it’s a talk or a conversation. And while we’re on the subject, I know “dialogue” can be used as a verb, but it turns me off.
  4. “Execute.” I like to get things done, but prefer not to think “Off with her head!” while I’m doing them!
  5. “Impact” is another noun that gets used as a verb, possibly because folks think it will have greater impact than the correct word, “affect.” “Impact” used as a verb means to actually hit something, as in “The rocket impacted Mars.”

#5 is a phenomenon that could be characterized as “verb drift” . . . where nouns tend to become verbs over time. If you like this concept, Facebook me or Fedex me!

Can Your Face Hurt You?

linkedin photosStep One to every LinkedIn profile is adding a photo of yourself. Since LinkedIn is a business site, the photo should be as serious as possible – a straightforward headshot, with no goat horns, family members, or weird makeup. So says conventional wisdom.

After all, you want potential employers to know that you have serious job cred, right? You know how to get a headshot (and a better one than you’d get done at a passport photo agency or photo machine at the penny arcade). You know how to dress for every occasion, including a headshot. Participants in a recent discussion on LinkedIn mostly agreed that if you didn’t post your photo, you were untrustworthy. “I would never do business with someone who doesn’t have their photo on their LinkedIn profile,” stated one participant.

But what if there is something obvious in your headshot that would prejudice someone against doing business with you?

A National Bureau of Economic Research 2003 study on name discrimination tested employers’ responses to resumes and found that a white-sounding name yields as many return phone calls as eight additional years of experience.

Using your photo on your LinkedIn profile tells the world your race right away. It also makes your sex perfectly clear (no “Androgynous Pat” on LinkedIn) and gives a rough idea of your age.

Discussions about damaging information on social media accounts tend to focus on the casual sites where you might be apt to tweet “My boss looks like a plucked rooster” or post a photo of yourself drinking your fifth fuzzy navel. LinkedIn is where you put your best foot forward, seeking to create and enhance business relationships and often job opportunities. We don’t think of LinkedIn as a place that can damage one’s career — you always put your best foot forward and even get to approve or reject recommendations you’ve requested.

Has human nature changed substantially since 2003? What should you do if you’re black, or middle-aged like me, or if your name is Lakisha or Jamal? Can these basic bits of information damage you?

The LinkedIn discussion I read suggests that you’re darned if you do and darned if you don’t.

One of my favorite refrigerator-magnet sayings is “Drink coffee–do stupid things faster with more energy.” Similarly, social media can magnify injustice. Instead of being a great equalizer, it allows people who form opinions for the wrong reasons to do so faster.

What do you think? Does using the gray blob on your LinkedIn profile automatically make you seem sneaky?