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Choosing the right words

A common error that people make when writing business documents is that they use language that is familiar to them – not necessarily language that is familiar to their reader. I recently discovered the game Words with Friends. It has been an interesting experience. I have learnt new words that I will probably never use again, except in the game.

Do you know the meaning of the words ersatz or achiote? Ersatz means 'inferior in quality' and achiote is a shrub from the tropical region of the Americas. These are both words that I would not use in everyday language yet they earned me valuable points in the game.

Using unfamiliar words in business documents

Imagine reading a business document that used words such as ersatz and achiote. If these are common words used in your industry then they would be acceptable.

However, if your reader is spending time thinking about what these words could possibly mean, then they may become frustrated and not bother reading the remainder of your document.

Your reader

Your document should always be about meeting the needs of your reader. No matter the type of document that you are writing – a proposal, report or email – always ask yourself:

Can the document be written using clear language that is easily understood?

Sometimes words that are unfamiliar to the reader may need to be used. In such cases, these words should be accompanied with an explanation of their meaning. This ensures that if the reader doesn't understand the meaning of the word they won't become fixated on working it out and in turn your message becoming lost or forgotten.

Your document could be a proposal for new work. Would you want your potential client to struggle through your proposal? Or do you think they would appreciate an easy-to-follow document which will assist them in making their decision?

If your document becomes 'too hard' then it is likely you may not achieve your desired outcome – winning the business.

How to choose the most appropriate words

You will know the type of language that you should use by researching who will be reading your document. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Will the reader expect industry-specific language?
  • What is important to the reader?
  • Will more than one person read the document?

An easy-to-use rule that can assist you is the KISS rule – Keep It Short and Simple.

To do this, check if your choice of words adds meaning and clarity to your message or if they have the potential to confuse the reader. If you have used unfamiliar words for the reader, review them and if possible replace them with simpler ones with a clearer meaning.

When writing your next document, consider the words that you are using and how appropriate they are for both the purpose of the document and the needs of the reader.

Although achiote and ersatz may be great words for your next Words with Friends game, having clearer words that add value, will result in a greater chance that your document will be read and in turn achieve your desired results.

What experiences have you had with unusual words in business documents?

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Maria Pantalone

Maria Pantalone is the author of Success Talks: Conversations with Everyday Leaders. Maria works with individuals and teams to make communication their strength so that their message is heard. She provides tailored programs in presentation skills, business writing and effective communication as a leader and team member. Maria’s programs help her clients to excel in their role and be recognised as leaders in their field.
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