Words to avoid when writing tenders and proposals

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 11/06/2017

Clichés are overused words and phrases that reflect a lack of independent thinking in a person, and a lack of dynamism and innovation in an organisation.

When first used, before they become clichés, they may lend a sense of prestige to the user; that they understand the latest jargon. ‘Going forward’ is one of these, as is ‘in the fullness of time’. Both are meaningless, and can be replaced with more exact time frames in both cases.

Clichéd writing means lazy thinking

Clichéd writing is a result of unimaginative thinking. Clichés have lost their force through overuse, and by using them, a writer shows they have made unimaginative choices, either out of laziness or perhaps a lack of confidence.

Although proposal writing should represent an organisation at its best, a cliché-filled tender will give these impressions of laziness or lack of confidence or both – and what government agency or business organisation would award a tender based on such qualities?

Instead of clichés, try for clarity and precision. The writer George Orwell wrote six rules for good writing, the first of which warns against clichés:

“Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

The second is: “Never use a long word where a short one will do.” Both rules should be written on post-its and stuck to the tender writer’s monitor!

Phrases past their use-by date

The following are generic phrases that will alert tender application reviewers to the presence of lacklustre thinking:

  • After the conclusion of
  • Going forward
  • Bring to the table
  • Despite the fact that
  • At the present time
  • Raise the bar.

These phrases can be replaced respectively with: after, in future, offer, despite, now and improve – a saving of 14 words, and an improvement in succinct expression.

These phrases should also be relegated to the cutting room floor when writing tenders:

  • We are pleased to submit (This goes without saying)
  • We bring a vast wealth of experience (Let the facts speak for themselves)
  • Our systems are second-to-none (Where’s the proof?)
  • We bring to the table leading-edge technology (Leading-edge means ‘latest’, so ditch the cliché, and take the table too)
  • We will ensure that our service (You could be in legal hot water if you don’t).

Some clichéd phrases alert readers to lazy thinking but also suggest the writer is out of touch with the zeitgeist.

The phrase “Think outside the box” is meaningless in a world where ‘the box’ no longer exists. Change is occurring so rapidly now that businesses and government no longer have a static frame of reference, or ‘box’. Instead, discard the cliché and give examples of how your organisation can provide solutions both now and in future.

Other phrases should be avoided in tender writing because they contain slipshod logic. For example, “We will give 110% to this project” is mathematically impossible, unless you can show your organisation plans to expand its current performance levels by 10% through a staff increase or buying new plant and equipment. If not, it looks like you don’t know what ‘per cent’ means.

Short words versus long

Orwell’s second rule should be applied to tenders too. The use of short words doesn’t mean your writing will be less impressive, just more concise. And by being concise, it will win the thanks of weary government tender reviewers. Here are some longer words to avoid, and their short substitutes:

  • Ascertain – find out, learn
  • Utilisation – use
  • Leverage – use
  • Commensurate – equal
  • Proficiencies – skills
  • Facilitate – ease, help
  • Implement – carry out, start
  • Preclude – rule out
  • Pertaining to – about
  • Accorded – given.

What’s interesting is that the longer words can be so easily replaced with words that have an immediate impact on the reader because they don’t require any linguistic gymnastics; such as whether ‘preclude’ also means ‘exclude’.

When jargon turns to cliché

We’ve all used ‘use’ since childhood, so why talk about ‘leverage’? Business jargon for ‘really, really use’, ‘leverage’ is insider jargon that shows your peers you’re one of the gang. Except using it also implies you’re happy to go along with what everyone else does; standing out takes more effort.

If you think the world of business turns a blind eye to the cliché, think again. Interviewed for a Forbes article, Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, thinks it’s time to abandon certain items of jargon.

“Jargon masks real meaning,” she says. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”

The same article identifies 45 instances of what it calls the most annoying business jargon, including: ‘core competency’, ‘buy-in’, ‘empower’ and ‘scalable’.

To find other ways of expressing these concepts may be difficult, but it would show that your organisation has gone beyond the cliché to find a unique way of expressing itself. In a competitive tender market, that may just be the advantage you need.

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