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When words are weapons of mass destruction

By Carol Butcher

Nuclear, radiological, chemical or biological weapons are not the only weapons of mass destruction – ill-chosen words, written or spoken, should be added to the list. These have the potential to damage careers, reputations, businesses and even families.

Examples abound. Recent examples include Imperial CEO, Mark Lamberti’s labelling Adila Chowan “an employment equity candidate” and unfit for a C-suite role for a number of years, Former Estate Agent, Vicki Momberg’s use of the k-word, and Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille’s tweets on colonialism.

Unfortunately, good writing skills and the importance of choosing one’s words carefully, when one speaks, are not part of the university curricula. These skills are particularly important for politicians and business leaders, and should be mandatory for every university degree; they are also important for the man and woman in the street.

Words spoken or written on impulse, or in anger or frustration can have severe consequences – Momberg was incarcerated and the court has yet to determine Chowan’s financial damages claim.

The need to choose one’s words carefully has been top of mind. I was delighted when a colleague recommended Tom Sant’s book: “The Language of Success.” Although the focus is on “business writing that informs, persuades, and gets results,” many of these principles also apply to the spoken word.

The book is a must read. I have listed some tips, which I found particularly useful:

  • Be polite
  • Limit the use of acronyms
  • Write (I would add speak) with a clear logical pattern
  • Avoid clichés, grandiose claims or minimal or no evidence
  • Avoid fluff- expressions such as best of breed, world class, innovative, synergy, seamless
  • Avoid guff – complex words, complex sentences and the passive voice
  • Avoid weasel words – may, might, could, virtually, like, believe
  • Ensure that your reports, letters, emails and proposals are clear, concise, correct, suited to the audience and suited to the purpose (These principles apply equally to the spoken word)
  • Be very clear whether you are writing (or speaking) to inform, evaluate, or persuade
  • Ensure that the tone is appropriate
  • Switch on the show readability statistics in Microsoft Word, found under the tab Grammar and Language

Two additional principles have always served me well:

  • Write your thoughts on a piece of paper and read out loud to check tone, accuracy, appropriateness and potential to offend, before you speak, or email, or include in any written document.
  • Less is more – delete any unnecessary words

Embrace American playwright, journalist and novelist, Larry L King’s advice: “Write. Rewrite. When not writing or rewriting, read. I know no shortcuts -” this will ensure your words are never a weapon of mass destruction.

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Carol has nineteen years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and case study writer. Her writing experience includes a stint as the resident Case Study Writer at the Wits Business School.


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