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Lies and Exaggeration in Business Writing

In the United States, political analysts and late-night television comedians have been talking about truth and lies, in light of the recent political convention. They accuse some convention speakers of hyperbole, misrepresentation, and blatant lying. Politicians and their spokespersons have been defending or talking around the misstatements, saying their goals for the country override concerns about the facts.

I do not mean to get into politics here, of course. But I am considering to what extent hyperbole, misrepresentation, and lying have worked their way into business writing. What do you think?

On a recent Friday evening, I had a serious problem with my website. I was glad to read online that the site registry's service department was open 24/7. When I phoned and emailed about the problem, however, I learned that no service technicians were available until Monday morning. Was “24/7 service" a hyperbole? 

A while ago I viewed an acquaintance’s new website. When I complimented him on the testimonials he had received from clients, he told me he had written them—using words his clients would have said if he had asked them. Misrepresentation or blatant lying?

An employee in a business writing class told me that when she needs an excuse for a tardy email response, she simply tells the email recipient that the company’s servers had been down.  Blatant lying.

It appears that the goals of these writers overrode their concerns about the truth. Yet in each case, my regard for the company or the individual plummeted. In the case of the site registry, I am looking for a new one—not because of the technical problem but because of the 24-7 misrepresentation.

How widespread are exaggeration, misrepresentation, and outright lies in business writing? Do you suspect or see them in the pieces you read? How do you react to them?

Syntax Training

Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

7 comments on “Lies and Exaggeration in Business Writing”

  • Hi Lynn: As a business writer with a healthcare specialty, I conduct quite a bit of research. One of the most challenging aspects of researching online is finding credible sources. Even sources that are supposed to be credible have ghostwritten articles from writers paid by pharmaceutical companies to write on studies with questionable statistics or results.

    Statistics is often another form of lying. A favorite quote I share on the subject is from Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damn lies, and statistics.” 🙂

  • Hello, Cathy. Thank you for sharing the challenges of online research. As a provider of online content, I sometimes experience that issue from the other side. I post the results of the research I do using the style guides on my bookshelf; then new versions of the style guides are published, and I am challenged with going back to update old posts. I worry that some of older my content will get out of date, yet readers will continue to rely on its accuracy.

    Statistics–now that’s another good topic! Thanks for bringing it up.


  • Hello, Jennifer. I feel that sigh you expressed at the opening of your comment. The dark area you mention, of people “deluding themselves into thinking they are behaving with integrity,” is indeed disturbing. Thanks for bringing it out of the closet, if only for a moment.


  • Economy with the truth, or flat out delusion? It’s surrounding us every day in the developed world. It’s called advertising and marketing. No wonder then that people think they can get away with half-truths and baseless embellishments.

    Taking a tangent, I was interested in Cathy’s quote. I’d always thought it was attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. According to Wikipedia — admittedly not always 100% — Twain’s autobiography attributed the quote to Disraeli. (,_damned_lies,_and_statistics)

  • American clergyman Abel Stevens said, “Politeness is the art of choosing among one’s real thoughts.” I’ve heard this expanded to “Diplomacy is the art of choosing from among everything you believe, which thing you will say.”

    There’s a need for that sort of diplomacy in customer service, of course, to defuse problems and find mutually acceptable solutions. But like so much of business writing (and politics) this requires skill and attention. A deft human touch makes all the difference between politeness and diplomacy on the one hand, and sloppy thinking or outright lies on the other.

  • Hi, Terry. For some reason I expect and forgive “economy with the truth” in advertising and marketing. I’m not sure why. Yet I do not easily forgive outright lying by companies, and I suspect other consumers react the same way.

    Thanks for commenting and for sharing the information about the Disraeli/Twain quote.


  • Hi, Lester. Thanks for expanding the discussion to tact and diplomacy. I agree with the “deft human touch” making a great difference. I believe a person’s intentions and integrity (or lack of it) make a huge difference too.


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