Why marketing jargon must die

There's a lie that marketing departments perpetuate without a second thought every time anyone uses marketing jargon. The lie is this: We use it for better communication.

While it may feel hip, cool, or "in the know" to the people using it, jargon really is nothing more than slang. It's a special slang that is used by a particular group or profession, but it really is just slang, and it's usually difficult for others to understand.

That should be the first red flag: that it's difficult for others to understand. Jargon usage makes it extremely clear who belongs to the club -- and, more importantly, who doesn't.

Ask any marketing executive about jargon, and he or she will tell you that it's necessary, a sort of shorthand that enables people who share a common profession to communicate more quickly and efficiently. To which I say -- nonsense. Clear communication has never relied on language that is not understandable by everyone in the room, and while you may presume at any given time that your audience gets it, you are probably wrong more often than not. Jargon assumes that everyone present knows the code, and certainly no one is going to admit that they don't -- it's like saying that you don't belong at the cool kids' table. But do you really want people leaving your meetings, pitches, and presentations baffled?

George Carlin had a routine suggesting that jargon exists as a buffer against reality, insulation against the notion that your work may not be as esoteric, intellectually taxing, and difficult to perform as you'd like others to think.

As was invariably the case, Carlin was on to something there. What jargon really does is express a simple idea through words that suggest complexity. "Utilizing" something sounds much more complicated -- and expensive -- than simply "using" it would be.

So by using jargon, we're reassuring ourselves that our thoughts, products, and services are complex, thereby justifying our sense that they should also be expensive as well. And, naturally, that we're special people because we understand this language shorthand that others do not. We belong in the clubhouse. (A quick caveat: In certain professions, the use of jargon can be justified. In law and medicine, for example, irreducibly complex ideas are indeed at the center of communication, and a specialized vocabulary is needed. But let's face it, folks: Marketing ain't rocket science, and it's time we stopped pretending that it is.)

The use of jargon impedes communication and throws up barriers between people. If that was not enough, it also reduces the impact of the very expressions near and dear to marketers' hearts. Clichés are white noise because they've been over-used, and the same thing happens to jargon. Want an example? There may have been a time when the expression "innovative solutions" had meaning, but it doesn't anymore. Everyone delivers innovative solutions, to the point where it's impossible to differentiate Brand A's innovative solution from the innovative solution offered by Brand B.

Is that really what you want to be communicating to your prospects and customers?

Of course it's not. If people cannot understand what you're saying, they're not going to adopt your ideas, buy your products, or engage your services. Making the client feel stupid has never been an effective marketing strategy. By simply replacing buzzwords with real words, you'll show that you're interested in communicating rather than impressing. You will demonstrate that whatever your product or service is, it can be accessed by everyone in the room. You'll tear down the barrier that keeps the cool kids isolated from the others, and you might even actually get some work done.

I'm going to share what I see as the five most egregious bits of marketing jargon. Take notes at your next meeting, and I'll bet that you can find some too.

Think outside the box

If you find yourself saying this, then you're absolutely not doing it. It may have been clever the first 6 billion times it was used, but not anymore. Nothing ages faster than slang.

Leverage (used as a verb)

This term comes to us from banking, where it has a very specific meaning -- and guess what, it's not the meaning that marketers have assigned to it. At some point copywriters started adopting "leverage" as a synonym for "use" -- sort of like "utilize," but even more dynamic and esoteric.

End-user

This one comes from software development, where there are, in fact, different levels of users. Marketers don't have different levels of users. They have one, and it's called a customer.

PowerPoint deck

There's an odd one. "Deck" came to us from the stack of computer punch cards that were once upon a time used to enter computer programs. There is no such thing as a digital deck, unless you're playing computer solitaire. What you have with PowerPoint is a presentation.

Synergy

Here's a feel-good word filled with empty calories. All it means is that you can work together and benefit from the collaboration. But, hey, it sounds cool.

Arguably one of the most successful businessmen of our time, Richard Branson, is himself clearly anti-buzzword. "Some people love speaking in jargon, using fancy words and turning everything into acronyms," he writes. "Personally, I find this simply slows things down, confuses people, and causes them to lose interest. It's far better to use a simple term and commonplace words that everyone will understand, rather than showing off and annoying your audience."

It's worked for him. I'm willing to bet that it might work for you, too. And remember -- it's always the coolest of the cool kids who reaches out his or her hand to someone outside the club.

Jeannette de Beauvoir is the owner of Customline Wordware.

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