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The Dirty (Half) Dozen: How to Avoid Overused Words

Candace L. Talmadge
Candace L. Talmadge

News releases seem to bring out the worst in corporate writing.

As a business reporter back in the Stone Age, I would read hard-copy announcements and my mind would darn near melt over the numbing repetition of certain words and phrases. So much gobbledygook and puffery.

Not much has changed. There are still terms that appear with aggravating frequency in new product or services notices and in much of the rest of marketing writing.

Here’s one recent example from BusinessWire:

Minneapolis (Business Wire) Inspired Spine completed its first annual education conference designed to provide leading surgeons, researchers and other clinical professionals with the opportunity to learn more about minimally invasive spine solutions. The last word in that sentence makes me scream and cringe. It is also the most used word on BusinessWire, according to a Google site search I recently conducted. 

Google search results on solution

(H/T to Adam Sherk’s most overused words in news releases in 2010.)

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Companies have slapped the word “solutions” on their products or services more than one million times since mid-2011. BusinessWire makes its new release public available for five years. Who wants a word salad with the same ingredients day after day?

Variety is the spice of life and of prose and speech, too. Even worse from a marketing perspective, descriptions that are meaningless from overuse rob a product or service of credibility. The offending noun or adjective lulls the audience into a stupor instead of grabbing attention or sparking curiosity.

There is a way to avoid overused words. The first step is to know which words fall into that category. Taking Sherk’s list as your starting point, conduct a Google site search. I did, and the following six words have the non-distinction of being at the top.

1. Solution (1,020,000)

Banish this word from corporate announcements or any other marketing copy! Now! It is so overdone it just falls apart unnoticed, and that most likely is not be your goal as a marketer. I’m especially looking at you, tech companies. Almost every IT or telecom news release I read includes this disaster of a word. The preceding news release snippet is from a biotech business. What a surprise.

Why is the word “solution” so particularly loathsome? Because anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with technology knows that a so-called solution invariably brings about a whole host of new headaches, requiring more money for additional technology or services to fix it. In such a circumstance, calling something a solution is tantamount to lying to customers, or at least appearing like you’re trying to pull a fast one. This is a cynical age; keep that in mind when choosing words for your new product or service.

Try the active voice instead. Say, “solves X problem(s)” and be specific. Use this to show your prospects you understand their headaches. The phrase “problem-solving” yielded 3,200 uses in a Google search, which is still used but not nearly as threadbare as more than one million hits.

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2. Leading (1,010,000)

When millions of companies call themselves of their products or services “leading,” the term has no marketing value. What on earth do they mean? Leading what? Leading where? Leading whom? Leading how? It raises far more questions than it answers. Leading has less than savory nuances, too, such as “leading question.”

Fortunately, leading has a lot of synonyms or words with a similar meaning. And that is the second step in finding an alternative for an overexposed term. Go to an online thesaurus, enter a word in the search box, and quickly bring up synonyms for it. A thesaurus is indispensable for good writing.

“Peerless” happens to be a synonym for leader. I chose it and then did a Google search of peerless on BusinessWire. It showed up only 1,260 times. Its comparative lack of frequency might help it stand out and garner notice. If you must use leading, confine it to a customer testimonial or social media comments, where it may retain some credibility.

3. Leader (352,000)

Doesn’t every business want to be regarded as a leader? If the majority of companies brand their products or services (or CEOs) as a leader, then the word packs no punch. Ditch it. I found a synonym in the word luminary, which the Google site search revealed was used just 765 times. There are less widespread alternatives to the word leader. Find them.

Take a page from the late William F. Buckley Jr. and seek out words that aren’t used often. Such terms prompt people to stop and think for a bit. Grabbing people’s attention is one of marketing’s tactics, after all.

4. Provider (333,000)

Same drill as leading. What on earth does this company provide? To whom? And how? Even worse, making the word “provider” a company description is poor diction, or word choice because the meaning of provider is bread-winner. Purveyor (635) is a less widespread option. Depending on the company, you can describe what it does, like “software developer” or “trucking services.” Be specific.

5. Innovative (323,000)

Be truly innovative and come up with a different word. Ingenious (954) and artful (389 hits) are words with similar meanings and much less play in news releases.

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6. Leverage (117,000)

I’m shocked this gross offender doesn’t rank much higher on the overdone list since business people speak it frequently. It is both a noun that means influence and a verb that means to take advantage of or to exploit. Less used noun alternatives include clout (1,080) and a less widespread verb alternative is exploit (7,240).

When avoiding threadbare terms, keep context in mind, because synonyms, while similar, are not identical and carry additional shades of meaning that you may not want. The thesaurus really helps here. It takes longer and requires more thought, but putting in the time and effort to uncover and use distinctive words makes your copy fresher and more attractive in a market oversaturated with the clamor for customer attention.

Image Credit: Monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Candace L. Talmadge
Candace L. Talmadge Member
Businesses now recognize the marketing power of storytelling. Human beings are hardwired to connect via stories that provide them with an understanding of themselves and their place in the world. Stories also connect you and your business with your ideal customers. So what's your business story? What’s the story that explains your company and the passion that drove you to start it? What’s the story that can effortlessly bring you and your target market together? It may not be what you think. Or perhaps you know it already, but haven't quite mastered telling it for maximum impact. That’s where I come in. I am a storyteller, and whatever your business story is, wherever it may be hiding, I will help bring it out and tell it compellingly to your potential customers and other stakeholders. A big part of telling your business story is asking and answering these questions in all of your communications: 1. What problem do my potential customers/clients have and don't want? 2. What solutions do my potential customers/clients want but don't have? 3. Why am I (or my business or product/service) that solution? Empower potential customers and clients to feel good about choosing you! I help businesses and professionals ask and answer these questions and tell the resulting stories to those customers/clients and any other audiences they want to reach and influence. Expertise: Business storytelling across earned and owned media. Writing coaching. Intuitive communication and inner shift-creative breakthrough coaching.