Will You Be Heard? Four Tell-Tale Signs of a Confusing Message

If you’re like me, you probably grit your teeth and groan inwardly when you hear a barrage of corporate-speak, loaded with cliches like “leveraging the synergy to take it to the next level” and other conglomerations of nebulousness. What is this person saying, anyway, you wonder, and what exactly is the point?

As the overinflated catchphrases roll sonorously past, you start to feel dazed, hypnotized… there’s probably a meaning hidden in there somewhere, you’re thinking, but it would take a year-long archaeological expedition to dig it out and dust it off.

Your eyelids get heavy…the speaker’s voice begins to fade…

Enough, already!

We’ve all lived through such Ambien presentations…and probably sworn to ourselves that we’ll never inflict anything like that on an audience! But fuzzy phrasing is a particularly insidious temptation that can show up even in ordinary conversations or everyday documents. You don’t need to flatten your listeners with sesquipidalian horrors to leave them wondering what on earth you just said.

The truth is, most people tend to start getting vague when they aren’t sure of their own meaning or message.

How can you tell when you’re obscuring your meaning?

The first red flag is your own feelings. If you ‘re unsure about your message, chances are that you’re going to fudge it. If you don’t really know your topic, you’ll be tempted to gloss. If you’re writing about a topic that has you in inner turmoil, unless you’re able to be clear about your own inner conflict, you’re probably going to try to blur your message.

If you somehow miss these inner warning signs, watch the way you’re writing. Your own lack of clarity will show up in little telltale ways that are practically guaranteed to leave your audience in a state of confusion.

Passive voice

An attempt was made at communicating….but nobody knows who made it! This little trick shows up most often in quasi-official settings like memos or reports. Perhaps the perpetrators feel they need to sound businesslike? Because the passive voice has no subject, however, it only succeeds in sounding as of someone, somewhere, doesn’t want to take responsibility for something.

Latinate language

This was the pet peeve of a wonderful writing teacher I once knew.  He’d listen to a particularly inflated composition, then practically shoot steam from his ears as he shouted, “Latinate! Latinate! Use the good old Anglo-Saxon!” And he’d point out the differences – how Latinate nomenclature (word choice) obfuscates (obscures) the signification (meaning) of the communication (message).  While there’s nothing wrong with choosing words with sophistication and precision, regardless of their complexity,  there’s a great deal wrong with choosing longer words purely for their impressive sound, or your own need to blur your meaning in a fog of verbosity. Remember that most people don’t read – they scan. The more complex your language is, the less your words will communicate.


I’ll admit it – I can also succumb to this kind of verbal shorthand. Cliches are phrases that are so common in the popular language that they slip out almost unnoticed – and are essentially meaningless and usually barely heard. “Taking it to the next level” is one example that I’ve heard applied to everything from profit-making to personal growth to coupon-clipping. “Sooner than later” is a useful fudge when you don’t want to specify an exact time…when, exactly, is “later?” You get the idea…if a figure of speech slips out in one breath, without thought, it’s probably a cliche.


We all use these – kind, less emotionally loaded terms like “passed away” for “died,” or “terminated” for “fired,” or “downsized” for “laid off.”  But there are subtler forms, too… indirect words and phrases that neutralize meaning, distance the writer from the audience, suck out the soul from the message. People often use this type of circumlocution when they want to avoid taking responsibility or blaming anyone, resulting in statements like this:  “my understanding of the deadlines required a decision, and we missed connecting as a result.” Direct meaning? “I skipped seeing you because I thought I had no time.”

So what’s the alternative – how can you communicate clearly?

Here are some simple pointers…

  • First of all, be clear about the message you want to convey. If you’re in conflict, or unfamiliar with the topic, work it through before you begin to write. Do your homework.
  • When you write, use active (not passive) voice in your sentences – make sure each sentence has a noun and a verb, a subject and a predicate. If an action was taken, make sure the reader knows who took it.
  • Use short, active, simple words that leave no doubt about their meaning.
  • Think for yourself, choose your own words – avoid cliches. Give your sentences a fresh meaning in your own voice, not the meaningless pop phrase of the moment.
  • Be kind, but clear. Own your actions and state facts without blame.

Finally, if you’re still struggling with your message, call us. With 25 collective years of experience in journalistic, technical, marketing, and organizational communications, Your Words’ Worth provides consulting, coaching, and creative services,  including editing and  ghostwriting.

Don’t fumble and fudge your message….email us at phila@your-words-worth.com and let us help! We offer not only writing services, but also editing and coaching, and can help you to communicate clearly and cleanly, whatever the project.

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