By far the biggest question for any marketer or business leader is how to build a loyal customer base — if you can’t figure that out, then it doesn’t matter how good any of your other funding or operational logistics are, because no one will care about buying your product or service.
One of the most common mistakes companies make when they’re trying to get people to take them seriously is creating content that includes jargon. Most people recognize this as insider words and phrases, such as “user experience,” “cloud,” or “front end.” It also includes abbreviations or words that are archaic.
But jargon also involves formulaic descriptors. For example, almost everyone has heard advertisements that assert a company is “dedicated to [whatever cause or process] to [blanket statement about improving your life or the world].” Or companies might say they have been “serving the community for x years” or “bringing services x, y, and z to your doorstep with [skills, tools, or philosophy].
Within these descriptors, leaders can also lean on filler terms and verb or noun combinations, such as “value-added,” “circle back,” “strategically engaging,” “time management,” or “apply leveraging.”
Regardless of whether your problem is insider phrases or descriptors, jargon can easily kill customer growth.
Why Customers Jump Ship When Jargon Flies
For insider phrases, the problem is that because your customer cannot define the words you’re using, they cannot follow your context fully. The picture they get of your purpose or offerings is fuzzy, and they spend time that should be spent evaluating what you have just trying to understand you on a basic level.
This lack of clarity is bad enough just due to the distraction it creates away from your message. But the true extent is even worse in that, in addition to making your potential buyer feel like they’re not in your group, you can make them feel unintelligent or as though there’s something wrong with them if they don’t already know what you’re talking about.
Even if you have customers who do understand your insider terms, using them is still problematic since you’re going to limit your customer base to only those individuals who already know those phrases.
Formulaic descriptors and fillers, by comparison, aren’t necessarily unclear. Rather, they don’t work because even though the way you fill in the descriptors might offer some unique information, there’s nothing novel in the way you box up your information. Your audience has heard the same basic script so many times that they assume you’re lazy and took the easy route — or that you weren’t competitive or smart enough to do something different. They assume that the poor effort you put into your content will match your offerings and customer service, too. So, they step back.
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Solving the Jargon Problem
1. Keep your language as simple and conversational as possible. Basically, talk how your customers do outside the office, not how you do in the boardroom.
If a third-grader or the stranger on the subway can’t understand you, then you need to break down your message more. This means picking words actually in the dictionary, thinking of equivalents you’d find in everyday language, and using the fewest number of words as possible.
Additionally, talk and write conversationally, the way you would at a relaxed dinner or around the TV, and use analogies your listener or reader easily can relate to.
You might not want to simplify this way because your goal is to impress, not to “dumb down.” But people are impressed by people and companies they feel connected to, and they won’t feel connected to what they don’t understand or empathize with. Leaders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk have recognized this and subsequently have communicated at a grade school level on purpose.
2. Come up with a ton of options. Despite not really saying much, jargon can give the impression that you’ve found the “perfect” explanation. Once you’ve hit on this “perfection,” it’s tempting to use only that, talk like a broken record, and be unable to describe yourself any other way. Creating many alternatives ensures that you’re thinking of your concepts from many different angles, enables you to manipulate subtle connotations for different audiences, and reduces the odds you’ll freeze when you’re on the spot.
3. Look your content up. Just because your jargon “feels right” doesn’t mean it’s new. And remember, people avoid companies that use jargon because they want something novel. Look up lists of frequently used jargon online and cut out items from those lists that appear in your content. The more you edit this way, the more aware you’ll become of your habits, and the easier it will become to avoid the jargon in future work.
4. Think in images. Creating mental pictures of your message or concepts will help you come up with appropriate analogies that are lively and engaging for your audience. Because your images are going to be unique to you and your experiences, philosophies, and knowledge, they steer you toward more memorable phrasing no one else is likely to use.
Take it from Hemingway, one of the most famous authors of all times: “If I started to write elaborately … I found that I could cut that scrollwork or ornament out and throw it away.” Or, from fictional character Dwight Schrute: “Keep it simple, stupid. Great advice, hurts my feelings every time.”
People often see jargon as a quirk of the business world that’s necessary to learn to be successful. But the reality is, jargon simply doesn’t sell or form a solid customer-company relationship. Jargon can also make it more difficult to network outside your industry for valuable partnerships and other resources. The more ruthless you are in eliminating it both in and out of the boardroom, the better off your career and business will be.