Sara Hemrajani | November 26th, 2020

Billions of people around the world experienced social, work or travel restrictions this year as a result of Covid-19. So perhaps unsurprisingly Collins Dictionary has declared ‘lockdown’ as its word of 2020.

The containment measures to combat the spread of the virus unified the global population in unique ways and, as Collins lexicographers explained, the meaning of ‘lockdown’ has “shifted irrevocably”. Additionally, its use has “increased exponentially since 2019”.

Other words on the shortlist were pandemic-related, including “self-isolate” and “coronavirus”, while “TikToker”, “BLM” (the abbreviation for Black Lives Matter) and “Megxit” (Prince Harry and Meghan’s withdrawal from royal duties) also made the cut.

The word of the year activity highlights how the English language is constantly evolving – our common parlance changes and adapts to suit cultural, political and technological developments. For example, 25 years ago, the word ‘text’ referred to printed material or a section of published writing – needless to say its primary definition is quite different now.

Naturally, this phenomenon affects the field of content marketing. Engaging customers and stakeholders is dependent on effective communications – and having the right vocabulary is absolutely essential.

Yet marketers are often guilty of relying on stale clichés and off-putting corporate jargon. Furthermore, the onset of Covid-19 introduced a raft of terms which quickly began to grate as the public health crisis persisted.

Since one of our key goals at New Narrative is ensuring that your message is compelling, we’ve put together our own list of overused 2020 buzzwords which should be retired or rethought:

  • Unprecedented: “In these unprecedented times”, “managing unprecedented volatility”, “tackling unprecedented challenges”…Although unprecedented is an appropriate adjective to describe the repercussions of the pandemic, people are tired of hearing about the disruption to their daily lives and businesses. At this stage, it’s well documented that we are traversing through the great unknown. Furthermore, hyping black swan events can ratchet up feelings of fear or show an abdication of responsibility rather than inspire confidence.
  • New normal and next normal: The framing of our present reality is problematic, not least because the impact of the coronavirus varies enormously from city to city. For instance, going to the office, watching a film at the cinema and eating dinner at a busy restaurant are still ‘normal’ pursuits in Hong Kong, however, the same can’t be said for London or Geneva. Therefore, ‘new normal’ – and its 2.0 version ‘next normal’ (the post-Covid era) – are highly subjective expressions. Both terms lose meaning when communicating to a broader audience. Plus, the ‘new/next normal’ discourse implies a sense of permanence when the truth is that none of us can accurately predict what will happen in 2021 or 2022.
  • Pivot: Judging from the current marketing literature, companies were endlessly ‘pivoting’ amid the coronavirus outbreak. Of course, switching to a lucrative revenue stream or consumer group is a fundamental strategy of any smart business, but “pivoting to…” is a hackneyed phrase in the corporate world.
  • Resilience: Don’t get us wrong, resilience is great, especially when it refers to the ability to endure and recover from challenges on the personal level. But we are slightly uncomfortable with the way it’s suddenly being held up as the be all and end all for businesses, when it basically means to the ability to return to your usual shape after bending under pressure. In a competitive and volatile environment, this probably isn’t good enough; most enterprises also need to be changing or developing to at least some extent. Making resilience an organisational goal is a bit like awarding yourself a prize for being able to stand still in a race where everyone else is barrelling towards the finish line.
  • Moonshot: A year ago, we didn’t even know what it was. Now thanks to politicians coopting it to refer to their ambitious pandemic-fighting schemes, moonshot is common parlance for a massively ambitious initiative designed for quick, transformative results, and graces everything from coffee bars to ETFs. As with other words on our list, it started out as something quite different. First used to refer to space travel and high-altitude baseball hits, a ‘moon shot’ later morphed into meaning a highly improbable occurrence … appropriate, perhaps, given how some politicians’ pandemic plans have fared.
  • Digital transformation: By design, technology is fluid and dynamic. This is why Apple releases an upgraded iPhone every year. Nevertheless there’s been an exceptional amount of noise recently about digitalisation and smart tech. How many times have you read the sentence, “Covid-19 has accelerated our company’s digital transformation”? Experts say the phrase ‘undergoing digital transformation’ lacks focus and specificity. In fact, it suggests your team was caught off-guard by obvious trends, such as cloud computing, e-commerce and teleconferencing.
  • Sustainable: Heightened awareness of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues has fuelled an interest in sustainable solutions. While these efforts are commendable, the word ‘sustainable’ is at risk of becoming a catch-all term or token gesture. Marketing executives should avoid exaggerating their firm or product’s ESG credentials if there aren’t genuine commitments or transparent metrics. Ideally, any content on the topic of sustainability should clarify what is being prioritised (e.g. improving compliance, supporting marginalised communities, reducing plastic waste) to demonstrate authenticity and leadership.

Hopefully these points will help you shape your organisation’s linguistic toolbox as we head into 2021.

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