When words become meaningless

Brands increasingly use meaningless words to sell products.

Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at something we all read, the humble restaurant menu designed to entice the hungry customer. Do you like your mozzarella from Somerset, beef from Devon, or Hampshire sausages? But what you don’t know is why Somerset mozzarella is superior to say East Anglian mozzarella. Menus across the land are littered with meaningless references to the heritage and provenance of food. What does ‘butcher’s choice’ mean to the diner? Have you visited the farm in question, will you ever visit the farm in question, do you have any idea if this farm makes any better bangers than the one next door? It’s not the restaurant’s fault: customers are cossetted by the feeling they know where their food came from, but we have allowed words to become an utterly meaningless comfort blanket. Words have become banal.

Next time you are online read the ‘about’ page on a company website – any company website. Then ask yourself: do I know what this business does and what is it selling? The answer is likely to be no on both counts. Why? Because professional communicators have become experts in obfuscation. The language used is so generic, talking of solutions, processes and efficiencies without once explaining what the company actually does. ‘Corporate speak’ has become ‘doublespeak.’ Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a company just said what it did? Businesses hide behind words because they don’t want to ‘give too much away.’ So-called expert communicators write euphemistically rather than simply. Is one of the reasons video is now so powerful and effective because words have become clutter ‘content’, holding back effective communication?

Algorithms encourage the use of more and more words for the simple purpose of boosting search rankings and provenance. SEO agencies bow at the altar of fresh online content, which may never be read by anyone. Words are used to solve a mathematical puzzle: – how to get to the top of the rankings. Words are also ranked for their value – how much they cost to buy for pay per click advertising, or for the frequency of searches. Words have become ‘key words’ for business. They are assigned a price and auctioned to the highest bidder. But what of the meaning of the word, what of its relevance, why is it on a website at all?

So what can we learn from this? Use fewer words. Use words to elucidate and inspire. Give back the power to the word.

Written by Ewan Robertson, Executive Director

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