This essay originally was published on November 18, 2021, with the email subject line CT No.103: "Leverage your humanity." It's the third of three essays. The other two are listed below:
My love for troublesome, problematic expressions
The Chicago Manual of Style has an entire section dedicated to "problematic expressions," called "troublesome expressions" in previous iterations. This glossary covers word pairs frequently confused and misused, such as the differences in meanings and usage of ambiguous vs. ambivalent; obtuse vs. abstruse;* flaunt vs. flout; and, in one of my favorite entries, the distinct usage of odious, odorous, odiferous and malodorous.
The Glossary of Problematic Expressions is delightful reading for writers, a treasure trove of precision and nerd points that, if used incorrectly, will inspire a flurry of corrections that will evoke colleagues' ire. But no one likes a corrector.
When used with empathy and as a personal development tool, understanding commonly misused expressions is strength training for your writing. If you like the English language, I recommend checking out the whole Chicago Manual, but particularly the Problematic Expressions section.
The biggest drawback of the CMS glossary is it's designed for publication and book editors and not business writers. It would be fun to use both odious and odiferous more often in my professional writing, but courting opportunities for that flex seems risky.
Instead, the most misused expressions in digital business culture are passed over by the Chicago Manual, probably because the CMS staff doesn't have to edit reports and white papers written by marketing majors and data scientists who haven't taken a writing class since the one required freshman year. So today I present: a few troublesome expressions, often misused in analysis, reports, newsletters, what have you, in the business world.
Write better, more insightful analysis and reports with these.
Troublesome business expressions, often misused, inspired by the Chicago Manual of Style
- Anomaly; outlier. In digital data, an anomaly is a change that's aberrant from a typical pattern, a sudden growth or decline in what has previously been steady. An outlier is a data point beyond the standard deviation, something that's off-the-charts or far from average in a static set of data. An anomaly is a deviation or shift from the norm. An outlier is not hanging out anywhere near the norm to begin with.
- Benchmark; average. A benchmark is a longitudinal measurement of your owned data—independently or within a larger dataset of similar data, i.e. within an industry—created to understand current or future performance. It's a mark on the wall that indicates your company's or industry's performance during a determined period.
- An average is the mean of a set of numbers and should always be accompanied by appropriate description: when and how the average was determined, were there any outliers, etc.
Benchmarks are comparative and may be controlled for seasonality. An increase or decrease in performance does not mean a benchmark has changed, unless the organization has reset the benchmark together. A benchmark is an informed mark to hit or miss, while an average is a basic calculation.
- Leverage; use. Leverage describes an advantage in a negotiation or conflict. One must use leverage or leverage assets to influence some sort of outcome. Similar to its useless cousin utilize, leverage is not a synonym for use. If you must use leverage, remember it's followed by an implied to our advantage for a specific outcome.
Incorrect: We will leverage the insights on our reports.
Correct: Leverage the findings to get more resources for our department.
- Insight; observation. An insight is an expression of cause and effect, or a conclusion of what a data pattern or result means. An observation is a statement of fact, often describing increases or decreases over time, or a pattern that can be easily gleaned from looking at a chart of graph.
Used incorrectly everywhere from the Google Analytics interface to the latest report from your paid media agency, insights require critical thinking to produce, something that computers cannot yet do. Computers can produce observations; only humans can create insights.
Observation: Conversions rose 5% month over month.
Insight: Our successful content campaign, representing careful planning and three months of dedicated research, likely caused a 5% increase in conversions month over month.
- Metric; KPI. My kingdom for publishing professionals to get this usage correct.
A metric is a number that measures a specific action, and independently of context or dimensions is just a number. Metrics is not a synonym for positive or negative digital performance. Many, many metrics are used in finance, publishing, or any business and their usefulness depends on context. If you're confused, just remember that you can always replace metric with the word number because a metric is always a number.
A KPI, or key performance indicator, is a business term that describes the predetermined god measurement, the one a team or business is using as its sole descriptor of success. Technically there should only be a single KPI for a team or project, since KPIs are meant to be unifiers toward a single goal. Because computers can only optimize toward a single goal, like profit or number of users, KPIs help organizations determine which of their many metrics is most business-critical.
Incorrect: The website has good metrics and KPIs.
Correct: The audience development team selected the growth rate of net new users per month as its KPI, with churn rate as a secondary performance metric.
Pattern; trend. A pattern is a repeated occurrence of a similar set of conditions and outcomes. Patterns do not move up or down; they just exist.
A trend describes whether a pattern or similar set of circumstances is happening more or less often, consistently.
Computers are excellent at identifying both patterns and trends, but humans incorrectly describe common patterns as moving trends when they are excited about their own analytical and creative abilities, or just looking for an angle.