Some days ago, an acquaintance shared his recent experience breaking in a new hair stylist. She asked how previous barbers cut his hair, specifically which of two cutting implements was preferred. He didn’t quite catch the first option but heard “shears” for the second. Thinking of the shearing tool used on sheep, he chose that, but he left the choice up to the stylist.
He was a bit surprised to see the woman start with the scissors, but said nothing. After what struck him as an unusually laborious process, however, he commented on her meticulous care. (It was his gentlest nudge to hurry her along.) The stylist explained she wasn’t used to cutting hair with shears. Recognizing the misunderstanding, he quickly encouraged the stylist to change her method—much to her own relief. He then offered that most people referred to what she had been using as “scissors.” In response, she insisted with a terse smile, “Shears.”
Several factors led to the mix-up, and in the greater scheme of things the incident was no big deal. Yet the story does lead one to wonder how often companies—and the professionals who lead them—lose productivity and poorly serve clientele by using “correct” terminology rather than the words customers best understand?
Some industries are more prone to jargon—as well as jargon-based acronyms—than others. Healthcare (jargon examples: topical, hypoglycemic) and finance (examples: securitization, liquidity) are big offenders but technology (examples: Cloud, onboarding and solution this-and-that) may be the worst. (We must admit, though, that people in marketing also habitually throw around terms that are meaningless to the average person.)
Industry jargon can be difficult to avoid because it rises organically as people with similar knowledge and training create a common language of sorts. Additionally, professionals tend to enjoy their jargon as a way of showing off and differentiating themselves from the great unwashed. Understandable … but stop it! You want to make a connection with your customers, and you can’t do that if important information comes across as “blah-blah,” “thingamajig” and “doohickey.”
Here are five steps to help clean the jargon from your external communications:
- Identify your target audience. Add jargon-killing as another reason why this should always be the first step in any marketing initiative. The better acquainted you are with your potential customers, the easier it will be to understand how best to craft a message that resonates with them. And if you happen to be targeting another segment of your own industry, you may be able to keep (some of) the jargon after all!
- Test language for common understanding. As we get comfortable in our surroundings (in our bubbles, nose-blind … etc.) it’s hard to recognize what’s jargon and what isn’t. Try presenting your marketing materials and Web content to people outside your industry for their feedback. A good professional marketing firm (like Pinstripe) can also help you “democratize” your promotional content and sales spiels.
- Identify things by their functions. Not only will this approach help assure that your audience knows what you mean, it may serve the dual purpose of clearly presenting a benefit to a potential customer. That’s a good thing.
- Avoid acronyms … or at least spell them out upon first reference. Often, if someone can see what the letters stand for, they can figure out what you’re talking about. This however, doesn’t always work. For example, noting UI means “user interface” may not help a lot. In this case, see Rule #3.
- Encourage customers to ask questions. No one likes to admit a lack of understanding, so customers may smile and nod even though they have no idea what you’re talking about. Keep this in mind, explain your proclivity for jargon (“it’s not you, it’s me.”) and sincerely encourage them to ask questions if there’s something they don’t understand.
This shouldn’t need to be said, but sometimes it is: Ignorance is not the same as stupidity. Customers may not know the right word(s) for what they need, but they are the only ones who can accurately define it. Don’t let understanding your jargon get in the way of your understanding what’s truly important.