When people refer to jargon, they’re usually referring to words such as “next generation,” “flexible,” “robust,” “world class,” and “scalable.” In fact, these are the top five “gobbledygook” words laid out in David Meerman Scott’s popular e-book,The Gobbledygook Manifesto.

Jargon, however, is any word that’s not understood by your target audience, as seen in the following true story. My colleague, who used to sell a specialty ultrasound product to the life sciences industry, had to give a presentation to a room full of technical Ph.Ds who would be using the product.

One thing I hear constantly with regard to jargon is, “But our customers are technical. They’ll understand it!” This is usually said when I recommend that technical terms either be eliminated or explained.

My colleague made this classic mistake when giving his presentation: He assumed that because everyone in his audience was technical, they knew all about ultrasound technology — that is, until someone asked, “Excuse me, but what exactly is ultrasound?”

I’ve made this mistake, too. I once gave a presentation on social media and afterward someone came up to me and whispered in my ear, “I was too afraid to ask, but what is ‘viral marketing’?” And this was a high-powered corporate marketer!

Moral: Never assume people know what you’re talking about.

We all use industry buzzwords and insider jargon when talking to colleagues and co-workers — and this jargon carries over to our marketing content.

Just do a search using the buzz phrase “innovative solutions.” You’ll find numerous companies are either named “innovative solutions” or they offer “innovative solutions” or both! Yikes! (Talk about making it difficult to differentiate yourself.)

The problem with jargon is that what’s perfectly understandable to you can be a foreign language to your prospects and customers. And, due to overuse, jargon-y words lose their meaning and become white noise. If everyone is offering an “innovative solution,” then what exactly is an “innovative solution” and how is one company’s solution better than another company’s solution?

Eradicating jargon takes vigilance and skill. It takes vigilance because jargon is like mold: it creeps up on you on unaware. It takes skill because often times, you’re battling powers greater than yourself (i.e. management who thinks talking in this stiff, stilted way helps attract customers.)

If you’re selling complex products and services to multiple audiences, it’s imperative that everyone understand what you’re selling and how it can help solve their challenges. Why? Because the people who actually make or influence the decision to purchase your product may not be all that technical.

So what can you do to reduce jargon and make it easier for prospects and customers to understand what you’re offering?

  • Don’t assume everyone understands what you’re talking about. When writing marketing content (for online or off), take it home and let your spouse read it.If he or she questions a term or phrase, consider rewriting it.
  • Spell out acronyms such as CMS, CRM, EDI, and ERP for obvious reasons but also because your acronym may stand for something else in another industry. SAN can mean “Storage Area Network” or “Styrene-Acrylonitrile.”
  • Don’t equate buzzwords and lingo with “meaty” copy. A mission statement that reads, “We are committed to delivering world-class benefits administration to our customers through scalable, proven systems and operational excellence” sounds official and weighty, but it’s definitely off-putting and hard to understand. (When I read it, I have to translate all the buzzwords first.)

Also try keeping a list of the buzzwords and technical jargon you encounter, then brainstorm to find new ways of explaining these terms in plain English. Not only will your marketing content be easier to read, your messages will stand apart from your competitors.

  • Oh, Diane! Thank you thank you for this post. I’ve been an audience advocate (as a writer of consumer and B2B advertising) and you’ve nailed the problem – and the fact that the more you learn about the category you’re working in the more likely you are to get dragged, unthinking, into the jargon jungle. Great, great post.

  • Arthur — Thanks for the nice words and the feedback.

  • Within companies, whenever the IT folks talk to the business groups, unexplained jargon and acronyms are ever present communications blocks.

    “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

    Applying the intent behind Einstein’s words above can help clear up misunderstandings – whether in words, speeches or visual aids during presentations.

  • Mark — The same holds true for any department within an organization as well as industry groups. I often hear terms / phrases that make me stop and think — i.e. “social graph.” I keep hearing it but am still not sure what it means — and I’m exposed to this stuff all day. Think about what it’s like if you’re a small business owner. You have no clue and end up feeling overwhelmed.

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  • Thanks for this post, Diane, that a writer friend passed on to me. I recently wrote bios for myself and my 6 colleagues. Despite my best efforts, I fell prey to jargon!

  • GREAT ARTICLE!

    My business just started flirting with B2B marketing and I’m always searching for literature that will make me more knowledgeable.

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