Avoiding Weasel Words in Your Business Writing

My day job as an industry analyst gives me great exposure to all kinds of business writing. Some of it is good. A lot of it isn’t. A common trait of bad business writing is what I call the illusion of action, or giving the appearance that you’re advising or instructing your reader to do something, but the action is either nonexistent or vague. From the content I’ve reviewed, weasel words are a big contributor to weak business writing.

Weasel words are words that avoid taking a position. You likely see them on a daily basis but they don’t catch your eye because you’re used to weak business writing. The weasel words I’m always on the lookout for are:

Assume Believe Consider Expect
Imagine Know Look Monitor
Own Realize Recognize Reflect
Remember Think Understand

Getting away from the business context for a moment, let’s say you’re reading about grilling steaks. When it gets to the part about determining the doneness, the step simple states:
Assess the temperature of your steak for desired doneness. [Bad recommendation]

What does that mean? How do I assess it? By touch? If you’re experienced on the grill, this might make perfect sense to you. But if you’re experienced, it’s unlikely you’re reading the recipe in the first place.

Instead, a weasel-free recommendation might look like:
Use a digital thermometer to check the doneness of your steak. Rare steaks are between 120° and 125°, while medium rare steaks… [Good recommendation]

The good recommendation tells the reader how to do something and, when necessary or available, provides some data supporting or scoping the recommendation.

Let’s Talk About ‘Leverage’

‘Leverage’ is a massively overused word in business writing. I can argue that it’s a weasel word because it is used to avoid taking a position, but it almost always means ‘use.’ You’re better off using the simpler and more direct language. The same is true of ‘utilize.’ Always use the shorter, more direct version to communicate with your audience.

Weasel words are evasive and destroy the value you’re trying to create for your audience. Avoid them by taking a position for your reader. If you find that difficult, you may not know your audience or the topic well enough yet.

Improving Your Business Writing in 2018

A large part of my day job is reviewing what my colleagues’ write. Every reviewer has certain things he or she is looking for, and the top of my checklist is finding and removing useless content. My goal is to make a document 5-10% shorter, which is generally easy to do because of one mistake I see writers make repeatedly:

They apologize for writing the document. 

Clearly, the authors aren’t coming out with a direct apology. These apologies are indirect and take the form of extensive history or context. Long narratives about how the world got to its current state, even in the context of databases or artificial intelligence, come off as defensive and tedious in business writing.

One method to help produce concise writing is SCQA (Situation, Complication, Question, Answer), although there are several others in similar veins. McKinsey likes Situation-Complication-Resolution (SCR). Regardless, the intent in the same:

Situation: Describe what’s happening in a simple way. “Growth has stagnated over the last three quarters and we must open up new regions to return to growth.” (Okay, not the most compelling story, but you get the idea.)

Complication: Outline what makes the situation challenging. This part needs to be clear, and separate from the situation. “We are having trouble hiring sales staff in the new regions, and existing staff are fully utilized.” This is also where you can support the complication with additional data points. Be as brief as possible.

Question: State the question that will get you to the proposed answer. “Should we continue exploring sales staff increases or rely more heavily on digital marketing?” The advantage of the SCR method is you can skip this and get right to the recommended actions.

Answer (or Resolution): Deliver your key point or points. Optionally, you can support your answers with additional data, but be brief.  “We must take both options by restructuring sales to target new, higher growth regions and building a targeted digital marketing strategy.” 

To improve your writing, write targeted documents and avoid the history lesson. If you simply must include the history, put it in an end note.