The Trouble With Jargon


Why your customers don’t understand a word you’re saying. . . and how to fix it

You may laugh, but for over half my life I’d never heard a dog go bow wow.

Hound Dog

Oh, I grew up around dogs. A beautiful golden retriever, a purebred Labrador, and a scattering of mutts. But they all said “woof woof” or possibly “yip yip yip,” never “bow wow.” I actually wondered who came up with the silly idea that dogs sound like that.

Then one day, a skinny, black stray wandered up my driveway. By his size and shape, I guessed he was some sort of lab-mix. I didn’t know where he’d come from but he was as friendly as he was hungry so we became fast pals over a bowl of dog chow. Then, with a full belly, my new friend curled up for a contented nap.

Suddenly, he woke. Jumped up. And “bow woooooooooow!” That’s when it hit me. That’s the sound a hound makes.

Confusing words you don’t realize you’re using

The term “bow wow” has been with us for a long time. According to Merriam-Webster, the first recorded usage was in 1576. Since then it’s made its way into literature, nursery rhymes, comic strips, and pop culture (bow wow wow yippy yo yippy yay, anyone?) That’s why most of you have never given it a second thought.

Every industry has words like bow wow that are so ingrained you use them without thinking. It’s called jargon. Jargon can be extremely useful for communicating with your colleagues. It defines the tools and processes of your trade. It can pack a lot of information into just one or two words.

The trouble comes when you forget that it is jargon.

 Never assume your customers know that a dog goes bow wow.”

How jargon undermines your marketing

In the course of a conversation, you can easily go back and explain a bit of jargon before moving on. But when you’re communicating via the written word, there is limited opportunity for the reader to say, “hey, you’ve lost me.”

When trying to demonstrate your thought leadership or the benefits of your product or service in writing, jargon will quickly undermine your goals.

  • Jargon confuses and frustrates the reader, causing them to look elsewhere for answers.
  • Jargon obscures rather than clarifies the reasons your customer should choose you over your competitor.
  • Jargon is a distraction which can slow or even end the sales process.

Clarity is the name of the game when creating marketing materials. Customers who read your content should feel more, not less, confident about making their purchase. You can help them by speaking their language.

6 tips for clarity in your sales and marketing writing

Know your audience. Before you start writing, think about who you’re writing for. If yours is a B2B business and your readers are industry insiders, then you have more leeway in your use of jargon. But more often than not it’s safer to assume your audience is unfamiliar with your subject. It is, therefore, your job to explain things to them.

Throw out your thesaurus. When trying to demonstrate thought leadership and expertise in your field, it can be tempting to impress your audience with big words (including jargon). Unfortunately, this tends to have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for. In fact, research shows that big words make you look less intelligent. While writing, keep in mind that the simplest word is usually the best.

Spell out your acronyms. Some industry jargon is an alphabet soup of acronyms (like SEO for Search Engine Optimization). The trouble with acronyms is not only can they be difficult to read (especially if you’re using a lot of them) they sometimes hold a completely different meaning than what you intended. To avoid confusion always spell out your acronyms at least once.

Tell a story. The human brain is hardwired to respond to storytelling. Your audience will have an easier time understanding and remembering what you’re telling them if you explain it with a story. For example, try using case studies rather than statistics to demonstrate the effectiveness of your product or service.

Ask your mom. Before you publish your writing, you can easily check how understandable it is by asking someone outside your industry to read it. Basically, if you’re mom gets it, you’re golden. (Unless your mom is an expert in your field. Then you’ll have to ask your dad.)

Get professional help. Of course, hiring a professional copywriter is always a good option. It’s our job to know how to create content that is tailored to the needs of your audience. And although there are benefits to hiring a writer with extensive experience in your industry, don’t shy away from a generalist. After all, a writer from outside your industry holds a perspective similar to that of your audience (unfamiliar with your jargon), making it easier to speak their language.

And just for fun

Find out How Dogs Bark in Different Languages.

*Photo Credit Justin Beckley


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