This post was originally titled as “Language to Avoid to Disrupt the Ecosystem and Take Your Content to the Next Level in Today's World” but we thought it contained too many business buzzwords.
How do you feel when you read this:
Competing on outcomes means solving for fragmentation and continuous consumer engagement at scale. Our approach uses analytics with big data and digital biomarkers for the messages you want to pull, not push. Our method flips the script to create new, digitally-enabled consumer experiences, build thought leadership, and mobilize a community.
It doesn’t take too long to find copy like this online.
If I can open my kimono, I used to be (and probably still am from time to time) guilty of writing copy dripping with buzzwords. I was particularly guilty of jargon-filled writing when putting together mission or vision statements. Somehow, I wanted to sound lofty but ended up sounding clunky and confusing.
The words are attractive. They sound important. They have their own rhythm and rhyme to them. Synergize. Change agents. Ideate. Leverage. Take things to the next level. Engagement.
Sometimes, I wonder if every B2B tech marketing writer needs a picture of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride hanging in their ergonomically-tuned, collaboration-efficient, open-office workspaces. Do you remember his famous line? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Clarity is Essential
Above all else, marketing messages must be clear. One of my favorite thought leaders in this space is my friend Steve Woodruff who has worked in pharma and pharma IT for many years. His book, Clarity Wins, contains powerful examples of how to push yourself to find the simplest and clearest ways to communicate complicated messages. Over that time, we’ve laughed about jargon and swapped website links full of nonsensical words (like the one that opened this post). On more than one occasion, Steve has called my bluff and pressed me to be even clearer in my writing. We discussed clarity and buzzwords recently by phone and have included some of our questions and answers.
When marketing my business, why is clarity important?
Unless we are communicating in a clear and compelling fashion, nobody can understand our business, nobody can buy from us, and nobody can refer us to others. If we live in that state too long, we’ll go bankrupt.
Why is clarity so difficult?
Clarity requires a real discipline of exclusion. You’ve got to distill your message down. Focus on exactly what you do, who you do it for, and why you do it so well. Then, express that in words that any normal human being can understand. One of the reasons I’m at war with jargon is that a lot of business jargon is not human-ready language at all. It doesn’t communicate. It actually obfuscates—makes messages foggy and unclear.
Most of these words started out as powerful and evocative phrases or word pictures. What happens to them over time?
They develop into what I call a tribal language. People start using terms without either knowing them or using them in a way that doesn’t communicate to outsiders. This happens frequently in the tech space because you’re dealing with very complex things. Any vertical market that has a fair amount of complexity or specialization ends up with terminology that doesn’t easily translate to outsiders, but then people in general business circles begin to adopt some of these buzzwords and use them to sound connected or sophisticated—whether or not the message is actually communicating anything clearly to the audience. The words just become “code” as opposed to just plain English.
Many of the products are complicated and require words and phrases that are being misused.
There’s a certain degree of technical speak that is necessary. That’s fine when you’re dealing with others who need to hear your message on a technical level. For example, if you’re a cybersecurity solutions company and you are talking to Symantec about your SaaS, you have to get into the nitty-gritty. You’ll be talking in highly specialized terms, and that’s fine as long as your audience understands you.
How do you coach someone to be less jargon-filled?
I ask questions. When I’m talking with a potential client and they use a phrase that’s full of jargon, I ask them, “What does that mean? What does that acronym stand for? What are you trying to actually get to behind that phrase?” Many times, the use of jargon is simply a lack of awareness. They know—or kind of know—what they’re talking about, but they really don’t understand that the other person in the conversation doesn’t have the same context, experience, or background.
Realize that the vast majority of people you’re going to communicate with don’t yet have the level of expertise nor the level of specialization in your solution that you do. Before going deep into technical language, express things in the way that your mother-in-law, your 18-year-old son, or a neighbor could understand. Sometimes, the best way to do that is by crafting an analogy or a word picture, or making a comparison (e.g., our product is like ________”). Those are the best ways to help others grasp difficult concepts.
Clarity is Golden
In Golden Spiral’s positioning process, clarity is our goal. John Farkas, our founder and CEO, has noticed an interesting phenomenon with B2B tech companies. They start out creating a technology solution to a problem no one else is addressing. It’s like they are orbiting a planet—the problem—and can see it clearly. They pour resources, money, sweat, and elbow grease into the project because they passionately desire to solve the problem and help others. The process of building the product is like landing the spacecraft on the planet, staking out a flag, and getting to work. Over the time it takes to bring the product to market, B2B tech companies get so excited about the solution that it overshadows their messages about the problem. They become so close to their product they forget the view from orbit. Then, when they start marketing their solution, all they talk about is the solution. They forget to address the problem that got them fired up in the first place.
Clarity is especially important when your company is forging a new marketing category. True clarity begets business. John writes:
A well-formed market category surrounds a need and defines it with remarkable (and comforting) lucidity. That clarity inherently drives demand. When something or someone defines our problem better than we have seen it defined before, or uncovers an existing problem that we never fully saw or understood, our natural inclination is to seek out that person’s or company’s solution. We want to solve our problem. That solution wins our business because our assumption is that the one who best defined the problem must hold the best solution. That assumption is an incredibly powerful market force.
Eliminate Buzzword Bingo
Marketing writing is the opposite of poetry. Poet Percy Shelly wrote in his “A Defense of Poetry”
All high poetry is infinite; it is as the first acorn, which contained all oaks potentially. Veil after veil may be undrawn, and the inmost naked beauty of the meaning never exposed.
Instead, you want your marketing message to be finite. You want each word to hit home and bear a single meaning.
First drafts are intended to be messy. Get your first draft on screen or on paper, then let it sit for a while, preferably overnight. Then, re-write the piece without any jargon. Substitute other words for anything that even remotely sounds like a cliche, buzzword, or a trend—even if your word count goes up. Next, ask someone outside of your organization to read the material. Afterward, ask a few questions to see if the message got through. Was it clear? If not, try again.
Develop a Company Glossary
More than likely there are a few technical terms about your product or service that can’t be broken down. Create a list of these words and then pen one or two ways of describing them to the uninitiated. It might be a definition, a word picture, or a comparison—whatever language you believe will help another understand. If your marketing, sales, and trade show teams can all use the same descriptions, you’ll have less confusion in your funnel and an easier time in on boarding, or getting new customers installed and running.
Be open to suggestions from other departments and how they describe each technical term. Add their descriptions to your glossary, too.
Include any acronyms in your glossary. Get in the habit of always expressing the full phrase before using the acronym in both spoken (live, video, audio) and written communication.
Read and Use Customer Comments
I don’t know why I’m always surprised when a customer explains a product or service in clear terms. The customer writes the review from the perspective after a company’s solution has met a need. What better place is there? Learn from and quote your reviews.
Irish Playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” I believe that holds true for B2B tech marketing. Constantly strive to be clear and free of words that confuse.
Let us know your most hated buzzwords through this two-minute survey.
FYI: The word “takeaway” made a list of hated business buzzwords.