Marketing communications can often be a lot of puffery. OK, yeah that stings a bit, but let’s take a look at it. Too often, instead of working at making a lucid connection between a company’s offerings and the prospect’s needs, people will turn out communications peppered with incomprehensible gobbledy-gook – goobledy-gook whose effect is not to clarify, but to obfuscate. When you say something like “Our core competency is leveraging scalable best-practice solutions,” you’re doing a couple of things, and neither of them is connecting with your audience.
Too often, people employ such language when they want to get their game face on and sound like the-guy-who-knows-exactly-what-he’s-talking-about. This is done by appearing to be so “been there, done that” about a topic that your every utterance is densely packed with meaning, and you wield this insider-speak with such prowess that listeners are impressed by the depth of your knowledge without understanding a bit of it. The thing is that the primary intent here is not to educate the listener, but to impress them. The fact that it feels impenetrable is kind of the point. The use of this type of jargon is done with the intent of bestowing upon the speaker a special mystique. It is meant to invoke a sense of awe at the presenter’s presumed expertise. The problem is, it creates a wall of noise between you and your audience.
Another reason people engage in this kind of talk (or, when online: writing) is that it serves as an effective bit of linguistic smoke and mirrors. By buzzwording past the details, poorly thought-through ideas can sound positively snappy. You can take a few half-baked notions, glom them together with a little biz-jargon, and VOILA! You sound like you are an alpha dog. What this does, unfortunately, is mask a lack of conceptual rigor by trying to shorthand the clever bits and fancy-talk past the gaps.
We see this kind of language all the time. Consider a company whose goals are to:
The text in the above bullet points was randomly generated by a piece of software. But it bears a striking resemblance to actual marketing copy put out by actual businesses. The messaging in these bullet points hovers on the edge of intelligibility, artfully evading precise interpretation while suggesting that we (the readers) should step back and let the experts do their thing. The apparent intent is to smile winningly and say “Ah, don’t worry yourself. We know what we’re doing.”
The problem is, instead of masking loose thinking, or trying to mesmerize prospects, we should be connecting with them. This means in a real, person-to-person way where they are being spoken or written to by a real human who is trying to encourage, enlighten, and inspire them by making it clear A) You understand their needs, B) You have thoughtful answers to said needs, and C) You respect the person you are speaking to.
Every subculture has jargon. It’s language that speaks to the peculiarities of a particular area of interest. Whether baseball, performance cars, or hacker culture, colorful jargon is a normal byproduct of people who are focused on a particular area coming up with specialized references that allow them to communicate. This kind of jargon can be interesting (if explained) or necessary (if speaking to an audience that uses the same vocabulary). We need to recognize this, because it’s unreasonable to make a hard and fast rule that jargon (even the kind of biz-speak above) is always verboten. Yes, some of it really is so oily that it just shouldn’t ever be used. But sometimes a particular word or phrase is actually necessary because it is part of the patois of the market you’re in. Another reason is when you really need one of these terms because it provides the necessary broad and encompassing label that your explanation needs.
Recently, I was working with a client who is in the business of creating custom software solutions. Now, “solutions” has been a buzzword in the software space for a long time. Often, companies use to describe what they do, but similarly to using the word consulting, it doesn’t mean a whole lot unless you add some additional explanation. On this project, we discussed the use of the term, dug more deeply into the particulars of what the client does and how they do it, and it became clear that solutions was the word to use for two reasons:
A) They are not just commodity implementers of the particular technology they use, but they are highly focused on mapping out a client’s landscape of opportunities, frustrations, needs, and desires, and then determining how to move from their existing configuration toward a more optimal setup. They are not just focused on “setting up systems” but “understanding situations and creating solutions.”
B) They needed a broad enough term that encompassed the variety of things they did, without getting lost in the particulars of any one specific aspect of their offerings. This was important for positioning their overall company. Once we got into the particular offerings, things became more targeted and specific.
If we had just used that word as a slick bit of jargon, their communications would have suffered. But we used it in combination with other, more detailed explanations that map out what they do. The term was used as an entry point, and then expanded and unpacked. That’s completely different from creating a non-communicative wall. Additionally, it’s important to keep in mind that a single buzzword in isolation is less prone to being non-communicative than a string of them put together.
Ultimately, the litmus test is: Are we actually communicating? The use of a particular word is less the issue than whether or not we are connecting with our audience. As people doing marketing, we should strive to make meaningful connections, and drop anything that is based on an attempt to merely “puff up.” If you find yourself stringing together buzzwords to describe what you do – ask yourself, “Am I making things clearer, or more opaque?”