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July 15, 2011Bad buzzword: it’s time to stop using the word “solution”

How often do you use the word “solution” in everyday speech? Probably very little.

Your car isn’t your transport solution. Your phone isn’t a communications solution. And I’m willing to bet you never refer to dinner as a “foodservice solution” or even a “hunger solution”, do you? What about your girlfriend? Is she your loneliness solution? Or is that what you call the bottle of whisky you drink alone, late at night? Is paracetamol in a glass of water your hangover solution in the morning? Or would you prefer another swig from the bottle?

Blimey! I just used the word “solution” six times in one paragraph. It’s enough to give anyone a sore head. Can’t blame you for reaching for that bottle of whisky. But that’s exactly what bad business copy does.

Solutions don’t explain what the product is, what it does, or why you need it.

Businesses like marketing themselves as “solutions”. It’s almost like they have an inferiority complex, going around pointing out how everyone must have problems and how they’re the “solution” to all your woes.

The trouble is, as I showed you in my introductory paragraph, the real world doesn’t work that way. We have specific names for things — and we don’t consider them “solutions”. Over-using the word solution simply suggests you don’t have much of a grasp on exactly what the product or service is you’re trying to offer. Worse, it obscures the very essence of what it is you’re trying to say, substituting a specific word for a general (and perhaps unsuitable) promise. Sure, you might get a girlfriend as a solution to your loneliness problem. Then again, you might get drunk, too. Obviously, the two things are very, very different. Both, technically, are “solutions” to your problem. But one of the above, you might not choose.

To make things even worse, a glass of paracetamol dissolved in water really is a hangover “solution” — in the dictionary definition of the word.

Turner Ink Copywriting points out a paragraph from Wikipedia’s acceptable use of English guide —

The word solution should be confined to its use in chemistry, mathematics and problem solving. It should not be used to refer to products, services, software or a combination of these things, since such usage implies that the product or service solves the problem it is intended to solve: the word “solution” should instead be replaced by a concrete descriptive term for the type of product, such as “software”. Solution often is used simply as a buzzword that can be eliminated altogether with no loss of meaning.

A company called Xxxxxx Medical Solutions came to me recently. I advised them to drop “solutions” from their name. “Xxxxxx Medical” wasn’t great. But Xxxxxxxx Medical Solutions sounded like something you’d find in a colostomy bag. The company actually sold dermabrasion machines. That’s all they needed to say. Not a medical solution. A dermabrasion machine manufacturer. Simple.

For example:

In the real world – Telephone, landline, phone call.”

In business speak – “Communication solution.”

The S-word actually obscures and reduces description through over-generalization.

As a result, business copy is littered with bad writing, such as “we supply business communication solutions” rather than “we provide fixed land line services” or “we sell telephones with business functionality such as conference calling, multiple line handling, etc”

Technically, carrier pigeons are communication solutions too — as would be a program like Skype. But without getting specific, I’ve got no way of knowing what your “solution” is, or if I want it.

A company that’s simply providing “solutions” isn’t providing anything at all.

You owe it to your customers to explain what your product is
before you explain how it “solves” their problem.

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This entry was posted on Friday, July 15th, 2011 at 11:56 am and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

7 comments

  1. Brilliant, as ever, good sir. I now have more legitimate reasons for the bottle of Bells.

    For me ‘solutions’ has become fashionable because of a reluctance to specialise. Firms all seem to want to appeal to a much wider market, and in doing so, miss the boat for their own! A total misnomer, of course. Once the client discovers that the firm does not supply what they want, there’s no trade anyway.

    Academia (and academic press) has been the same. There’s a book called ‘Reading Revolutions: The Politics of Reading in Early Modern England’, which sounds wide-ranging, but it’s based on the reading notes of one relatively unknown peer. It’s marketed as a broad survey to drop into as many fields, periods, and interdisciplinary interest groups as possible. In reality, it’s buzzwords inflating a narrower subject.

    I can perfectly understand businesses (and presses) being concerned about widening the net to attract custom, but nothing really replaces honesty and accuracy. After all, such are search-enginges these days that if someone wants a dermabrasion machine, chances are they’ll find one (and their ‘solution’) through those words alone.

    Catch up soon, my friend. If I’m going to hop-Scotch, so to speak, I might as well be sociable about it. :)

  2. Aaron says:

    Thank you! A client asked me to add ‘solutions’ to their tagline this will help me explain why it is not a good idea!

  3. David Robinson says:

    Great article. Thanks for sharing.

  4. al says:

    Thanks guys! I really appreciate it when people take time to tell me they’ve found something I’ve written useful.

    To respond to Keith, I think the other problem with the word “solution” is quite semantic, and it’s something I haven’t really touched on here for fear of becoming too academic…

    But it seems to me that when you offer a ‘solution’ you’re implicitly stating that your customer has a ‘problem’ — and that to me instantly starts the conversation with a negative tone. You’re inadequate, the word seems to say.

    It sets a dominance / subservience relationship between retailer and client — which for me, as a purchaser, is a major turn-off. This is probably why I’d rather buy a product or a service than a “solution”. Food for thought!

  5. I’m totally with you if we’re talking about situations where “solution” is being used to artificially make the offering sound more sophisticated than it actually is.

    Then again, you might have an IT services company that helps a customer improve the time-to-market of their ecommerce system while at the same time decreasing its operating cost. The, err…, solution includes a new platform, new software, an outside partner to provide parts of the whole, lots of consultation, a dedicated support team and providing the lot as a service, complete with the responsibility of maintaining and updating the whole shebang as necessary.

    In the absence of a “solution”, it would be mighty difficult to condense all that into something that makes sense and can even be repeated a few times in a case study.

  6. al says:

    I’m with Wikipedia on this one when it comes to describing software as a “solution” — in fact, the more complex something is, the more the need for a proper explanation of what the thing does. “Solution” is a double assumption — both an assumption that there is a problem, and that the offering in question solves it.

    I’ve read elsewhere that the reason “solution” doesn’t work is because it doesn’t pass the “seven year old test” (i.e. can you explain what this product is / does to a seven year old?) — if it doesn’t pass that test, it probably doesn’t pass a skim-read test either. Messages get lost.

  7. mark says:

    just got out of a consulting meeting where everyone would not stop saying solution over and over.

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