By Dennis McCafferty published April 29, 2013

How to Stop Jargon From Pulling the Plug Out of Your Powerful Content

jargon road signWe live in the Age of Jargon-Geddon, buried under a blizzard of buzzwords.

For example, during the day, we use expressions such as “core competencies” (meaning: “what we’re good at“), “best of breed” (are we talking about show dogs?), and “ideate” (as opposed to “think?”).

After work, those of us who are parents attend school meetings, where educators tell us (with straight faces) that we must improve “enrichment processes to elevate engagement structures.” Translated from jargon into English (you know, the language we send our kids to school to learn to use properly and clearly), this means: “We need to do a better job of keeping our kids interested in class.

I’ve even taken part in a lively debate over whether content marketers, too, are guilty of resorting to jargon to describe what we do, in an attempt to mystify work that is (let’s face it) not exactly as complex as quantum physics. 

At our firm, we recently ran a radio campaign that poked gentle fun at the abundance of jargon clutter that muddles messaging within the tech industry (our target market). Take the ubiquitous use of the phrase, “the cloud.” Depending upon which tech type you’re chatting with, the cloud is nothing more than the internet and/or an internal network that your company oversees. Calling it “the cloud,” however, seems little more than an attempt to make it sound lofty and mysterious. (I loved it when Oracle CEO Larry Ellison famously dismissed the term as “complete gibberish.”)

Think of the truly powerful content and marketing campaigns — the instant classics we still talk about. Did a single one establish a powerful bond with audiences through jargon? Dodge Ram earned raves for its “So God Made a Farmer” Super Bowl ad, with the late Paul Harvey‘s words so brilliantly describing the farmer tending to a dying colt, and refusing to “cut corners” as he plowed. It forged a powerful, emotional bond with viewers, projecting a dedication to the principles of integrity and commitment — the exact message you want to hear from an auto manufacturer. The same could be said for Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad from 2011, which featured rap artist Eminem and forged a memorable association between the company’s vehicles and the resilience of hardscrabble Detroit through the honest, simple phrasing of its core message: “This is what we do.”

Still, opinions on jargon overall remain fiercely divided. On the one side, jargon-philes stuff their content marketing with enough arcane, manufactured twaddle to fill a landfill. On the other, diehard defenders of the English language self-righteously insist on banning any and all jargon-speak and buzzwords.

The veteran journalist in me leans more toward the latter side of this equation; but my inner content marketing director realizes that “zero tolerance” isn’t realistic. In coming up with on-point messaging for our clients, there are a number of jargony-sounding terms that are commonly accepted within the tech/B2B community and serve a useful purpose. “Highly scalable,” for example, may sound like babbling nonsense to a lay person. But to a marketer, it clearly conveys an essential quality for tech solutions that serve today’s ever-expanding enterprises.

But even those of us who reluctantly turn to jargon as an occasional, yet necessary evil will admit that, sometimes, we go a bit overboard — and other times, we go way overboard. So much so that Forbes recently produced an amusing, March Madness-styled bracket competition for the all-time most annoying business jargon.

business jargon brackets

Image via Forbes.com

You can’t create powerful content on a foundation of jargon

To avoid self-parody, many content marketing folks will coax clients into at least minimizing the presence of jargon in the content they create, explaining that an excess of it will bury and/or confuse the message. In fact, Sarah Skerik, PR Newswire’s Vice President of Social Media, even contends that creating jargon-filled content is a risky move, strategy-wise. For starters, she says, it hurts SEO because users search for terms that reflect the way people speak. Skerik also makes the case that these phrases are boring and can hurt a business’ credibility, which damages its content’s potential to earn page views and a strong following amongst users.

She makes a fairly compelling case, to which I’ll add the following arguments that have convinced some of my content marketing peers:

  • Jargon overload implies you don’t know your topic as well as you should: That’s right. The overuse of jargon and worn buzzwords is a crutch; a convenient Get Out of Jail Free card played when you really don’t have a knowledgeable command of your topic. Like Avis, successful content marketers “try harder” by taking on often-exhaustive research and (gently) pushing the client to demystify the subject at hand.
  • It conveys you have nothing new to say: When you send a press release, post a blog, write an ad, and/or submit an executive-bylined article packed with empty, trite phrases, it immediately tells the target audience that you have no fresh insights to offer. So why would they want to read it, much less share it via social media?
  • It means you’re playing it too safe: Look, we all know that not every client is cut out to play the contrarian; some company cultures overtly discourage it. But give me a client who’s eager to stir some waves by making well-reasoned statements that challenge conventional wisdom, and I’ll know I have the potential to craft a very impactful piece. When we’re resigned to “just keep it safe,” we resort to lots of jargon to make the content sound smarter than it really is.
  • Because a lot of this stuff is “made up”: OK, time for my “emperor has no clothes” moment. Here’s a revelation: The vast majority of jargony language and buzzwords are pretty much made up by folks out there seeking to emerge as the Next Great Guru of their respective industries. The problem is that this sort of manufactured, pasteurized, and processed speech tends to get passed along eagerly by disciples, and often achieves universal, unchallenged acceptance. As communicators, we should politely call out the sheer ridiculousness of some of these terms before they have a chance to spread like avian flu.

However, winning over our content marketing colleagues will only go so far in addressing the problem if our clients aren’t also buying in. To address that goal, I’ve gathered a few thoughts from other content marketers:

  • Take baby steps: As I wrote in a recent CMI post, Beth Tomkiw, Executive Vice President and Chief Creative Officer at McMurry/TMG, seeks out talented pros who bring serious journalism chops to the table. She feels it’s a great way for creating content that actually says something, while skillfully avoiding empty, tired terminology. Suffice to say, journalists generally “get” this need.

As for the jargon-dropping client? That’s a different story. So it’s best to gradually build up trust over time, Tomkiw says.

To get there, she hires journalists whose bylines have graced the same industry publications which the client reads — and would like to get placed in: “When you’ve proven to them that you are hiring the very best writers who absolutely understand their ‘space,’ you establish instant credibility,” Tomkiw says. “They respect you, and will buy into your recommendations to strip away the arcane and focus on making a real connection through honest language.” Clearly, the formula works. Tomkiw has lead her custom-content company to multiple, prestigious awards, most recently the Gold Pearl from the Custom Content Council for best overall editorial of the year, for Amtrak’s Arrive magazine. (Full disclosure: I previously served as a regular Arrive cover story contributor.)

  • Get down to business: If you’re dealing with successful client executives, why not convince them through giants in their field? A tech client could be persuaded by presenting examples of the signature direct, accessible style of the late Steve Jobs. (Just try finding a shred of jargon in his famous 2005 Stanford graduation speech.) Susan Weiner, who produces content marketing for investment companies, also cites one of the true icons in this space: Warren Buffett. “I tell them no one accuses Buffet of being unsophisticated or boring,” she says. “But he uses plain English.”
  • Go cold turkey: Nadine Keller boldly urges clients to stop using trite terminology in their daily conversations: “If you don’t use it on the inside, you won’t on the outside,” explains Keller, who runs Precision Sales Coaching, a sales/marketing coaching and training firm. “I’ll host workshops in which we ask attendees to identify three examples of the jargon they use, and replace them. It gets a lot of laughs, and we’ll award a prize to whomever comes up with the best examples.”
  • Define and conquer: Quintain Marketing CEO Kathleen Booth strives for a “meet you halfway” approach. She often encourages her engineering/construction clients to post a glossary of frequently used terms with definitions on their websites, should they insist upon using them. “We’ll use keyword research tool analysis, as well, to pinpoint what terms the desired audience is using,” Booth says. “Or we’ll search discussion groups and show when a word or phrase isn’t being used in discussing the company’s products or services.”
  • Offer teachable moments: Dow Media Group Founder/President Leigh Dow convinces clients by appealing to their inner teacher, as audiences often consume content as a learning tool. Staying with this analogy, think of jargon as the ineffective professor who frustrated you by speaking in what seemed to be a foreign language. “Instead of going this route, demonstrate to them the impact of pieces or blogs that are more instructional in nature,” Dow says. “Show them how using ‘real’ examples really helps make a connection, especially if it’s highly relatable. Instead of relying solely on an esoteric unit of measurement, for example, we’ll compare something described in micrometers as ‘having a certain thickness of human hair.’”
  • Emphasize bottom-line thinking: Ultimately, you can win the jargon argument by starting at the end, rather than the beginning. “We drive toward getting the client to determine what they want people to do with their message,” says Joanne Y. Cleaver, President of Wilson-Taylor Associates. “Do they want them to buy something? Or understand something better? Focus on intended effect and then back it up with simple steps. What does the audience need to understand to respond as you hope? What do you have to say that’s so important that they must know it? This is how you drill down to a core, compelling message which invokes action.”

So before you reach for jargon when you create content, ask yourself questions like, “What message am I trying to communicate here?” “Will my target audience find it both relatable and compelling, or am I resorting to jargon as a crutch because I don’t honestly know what I’m attempting to say?” Or, even worse, “Am I inventing made-up language to create what can be promptly dismissed as pseudo science?

If the answer to that last question is “yes,” then you’ll risk allowing jargon overload to defeat the purpose of the content by undermining the messaging campaign. An influential teacher inspires desired outcomes from students (i.e., acquired knowledge) by demystifying the unknown. As content marketing professionals, we should push ourselves — and our clients — toward this same standard.

For more content creation ideas that don’t rely on jargon to convey a message, read CMI’s Ultimate eGuide: 100 Content Marketing Examples. 

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Dennis McCafferty

Dennis McCafferty has served as the Director of Content for W2 Communications since December 2010, responsible for a wide range of strategic content marketing-messaging efforts for tech-industry clients. Previously, he launched his own content business, DM Enterprises, and worked with clients such as IBM, Advanced Micro Devices, USAA, Nationwide, Ritz-Carlton, MasterCard, GM and many others. He also served as Senior Writer at USA WEEKEND, for which he interviewed Presidents Bush and Clinton, Caroline Kennedy, Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Peyton Manning and Shaquille O'Neal, among others. During his time with WEEKEND, he appeared on CNN, Fox News, NPR, ESPN and numerous other outlets.

Other posts by Dennis McCafferty

  • kim

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  • BrookePalm

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I can’t stand the use of jargon or buzzwords. It’s not effective communication with your customers.

    To me the all-time worst phrases are ‘it is what it is’ (basically saying nothing) and ‘get down to the granular level’. That just makes me think of sugar.

    Brooke

  • http://www.facebook.com/scottwayres Scott Ayres

    I wanted to say this post was “Epic” but that’s another buzz word that needs to die!

  • http://www.facebook.com/dmccafferty Dennis Mccafferty

    Ha ha ha! Very good one, Scott. (See? I resisted using the ubiquitous “LOL.”)

    Brooke, I believe “it is what it is” has now emerged as the #1 phrase of use among sports coaches/athletes when their team is at the bottom of the standings. Because these coaches and jocks command such a firm grasp of the obvious.

    Thanks for feedback folks!

  • Kathleen_Booth

    Thanks for including my tip here Dennis! With clients in jargon-heavy industries such as insurance, IT, real estate, and legal, you can imagine that this is a battle I am constantly fighting. I know its hard for my clients to get out of the habit of using industry jargon in their marketing, but that is one of the real value-added services I can help them with.

    And to follow on Brooke and Scott’s comments, I really love to hate terms like “syngergy”, “scaling up” and – for you content marketers – “content is king”!

  • http://www.writespark.com Janice King

    I’m glad to see your note about technical terms that often seem like jargon to others actually have a specific meaning and an appropriate use in technology marketing.

    One other reason to make clear word choices: for understanding by readers who don’t speak English as a first language. This is an important factor in marketing that increasingly has a global reach.

    And while I agree that journalists are trained to avoid jargon, a good copywriter will also know which terminology is best for reaching the target audience.

    Thanks for a post that is a thoughtful contribution to the discussion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/RockSolidBWalk Brian Walker

    A few years back, I was writing an article on shark bites, and interviewing an academic type who was an expert in the field. I asked him why Volusia County, Florida was the shark bite capital of the world. And he said the key factor was a “high rate of aquatic recreational utilization.” I’m sure the look on my face said it all as I processed his academic jargon, and finally said, “You mean there’s a lot of freakin’ people in the water?”
    “Well, yes. Something like that.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/RockSolidBWalk Brian Walker

    A few years back, I was writing an article on shark bites, and interviewing an academic type who was an expert in the field. I asked him why Volusia County, Florida was the shark bite capital of the world. And he said the key factor was a “high rate of aquatic recreational utilization.” I’m sure the look on my face said it all as I processed his academic jargon, and finally said, “You mean there’s a lot of freakin’ people in the water?”
    “Well, yes. Something like that.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/dmccafferty Dennis Mccafferty

    That’s hysterical, Brian. But at least he appears to have a sense of humor about it.

    In my first job as a newspaper beat reporter, I interviewed a teacher who won an award. He got very offended when I referred to him as a teacher. I asked him why since, technically, he was a teacher. He said, “You teach a dog to do tricks. I’m an educator.” Yeesh.

  • Bob Bly

    “It is what it is” is a shortcut that expresses the same sentiment as the popular serenity prayer: “God grant me the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change…..”

  • Lozbel

    Is the title a sarcasm for what the post is about? “Pulling the Plug”?

  • http://twitter.com/ideasculptor maggie chicoine

    “An influential teacher inspires desired outcomes from students (i.e., acquired knowledge) by demystifying the unknown.” – Simplified?