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Don’t Use That Language With Me

by Angie Halama on January 26th, 2012

Perhaps I’m distracted, maybe I’m tired. I’ve read this copy three times and I still don’t know what it’s talking about. I must not be focusing. Maybe I need more coffee …

Or maybe, the problem is the copy itself. Ah, yes. I see it now: jargon. Obscure, technical terms I think I should know, because the copy keeps using them, but I don’t (what’s a “drive-by download”?). Words that sound impressive, but may be uncommon, and therefore vague, to a general audience (think “erudite” instead of “well-read”). Buzzwords that have been used so much—and so badly—that their meaning is diluted (like “innovate”).

Nothing kills content like jargon. Here are three ways you can make sure it doesn’t end up in your content.

  1. Speak your audience’s language

    Before you start writing, stop and deliberately consider what words your audience does and doesn’t use in their daily language. If your audience is IT professionals, it makes sense to use IT terms with them. But if you’re talking to small business owners who need IT services, using IT terms is confusing, meaningless, and inconsiderate.

    When in doubt, remember: Simple, common words cover a lot of ground with any audience, because everyone immediately knows what they mean. And they’re especially important to low-literacy readers, who are more common than you may think. Learn more about them in Angela Colter’s article, “The Audience You Didn’t Know You Had.”

  2. Get specific

    It can be easy to fall into using buzzwords or words with vague meanings. Let’s take an article about writing training, for example. I could start by saying, “Optimize your writing skills and leverage your business.” But what does that mean? Could a reader even guess at what I’m saying?

    It would be better if I was more specific, like “Learn to write concise copy that customers read and respond to.” Language that’s precise gives readers a clear idea about what they’re going to read next. This is especially important when you’re writing high-level information that leads to more detail.

  3. Know what you’re talking about

    The jargon problem can be about more than just word choice. To write clear and useful copy for readers, you need to be an expert on the audience, and on what you’re selling. Or at least have expert-level information.

    Vague language can be the result of vague ideas, so before you start writing, make sure your expert information includes:

    • Who the customer is
    • Their hopes and desires
    • The problems they want to solve (goals)
    • How this product/service/idea meets their needs

    If I’m struggling to write clear and convincing copy, I sometimes find I don’t know enough. Sure, I may have product specs and a customer profile, but if I stop and listen, I hear questions nagging at the back of my mind. What’s so special about this product? Aren’t there a dozen others like it? What’s driving my audience to seek this information? What questions do they have in their minds?

Show your readers you know who they are

Stick your feet in the reader’s shoes. It really is the real purpose of your copy: to show the audience you took their shoes (OK, borrowed), you’ve got them on, and you did a 5K in them. Because if you understand their needs, and exactly how your product/service/idea meets those needs, then that’s all you need to tell them—in concise, simple terms. And that is far more compelling to your readers than a thousand fancy words.

  • http://www.blue-ferret.com/ BlueFerret

    Great way to lay the jargon issue out.  “Nothing kills content like jargon” – Truth!

    I find that most people get stuck at #3.  You can get them past #1 without much difficulty.  #2 is even easier; spin up some ridiculous jargon examples, and it’s all laughed away.

    But #3 is where the rubber meets the road.  Too often I’ve sat down with potential clients who weren’t even sure to whom they were selling.  And that’s after 5 years in business! 

    When they don’t know what customers are after, they fall apart and retreat toward what they perceive as a “safe” approach.  Namely, using lots of jargon to sound important.

  • http://twitter.com/joannapieters Joanna Pieters

    Good examples, Angie. And I think this is true before we get anywhere near our readers.

    Across many digital disciplines I hear people  express frustration at not being able to get other people to understand the importance of what they do. It’s particularly a complaint about senior people in companies: that is, the decision makers with the budgets. It’s too easy to forget that senior execs have often come from a non-digital background, and are in their roles for other reasons: general business skills, leadership, financial acumen. They’re busy, they’re in demand. They don’t see the need to learn another vocabulary to do their jobs. In our attempt to sound impressive or expert, we’re alienating them from the first time we say ‘semantic web’.

    If we’re to increase our power as a digital industry, we need to develop a way of explaining the benefits of what we do simply and clearly. So all of your points apply, from the first time we go into that client pitch or internal meeting room.

  • Anonymous

    Great points here. It’s so counter productive to try and win over your audience and gain their loyalty by writing content that doesn’t even try to relate to them. If they feel like they can trust you and go to you for excellent content and info than you’re winning. 

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