Is Jargon Stopping Your Work From Standing Out?

As I reviewed my ABCDs of Better Communication, I realized that “D,” which stands for differentiation, had quietly made its way over from marketing and infiltrated communications. What gives?

I worked with a branding expert some years ago who extolled the virtues of branding in providing strategic clarity to organizations. The light bulb went off; I saw how I could tear some sheets from the branding playbook to bring clarity to my communications and remain on purpose. So, ever since, I’ve been operating from the fertile ground where branding and communications mingle.

Differentiation is a cornerstone of branding. It relies on the primitive parts of our brains. Way back when large hairy creatures roamed the earth, our ancestors had to be able to determine whether something or someone was friend or foe. And we had to do this really fast in an “eat or be eaten” world. So, apparently, we became highly attuned to differentiating one thing from one another. Makes sense to me.

With many of the life and death threats faced by our ancestors assuaged by electricity, polyester and the internet, we can now use this very evolutionary wiring to become better communicators.

“What makes you different from the others in your field? What are you or your organization/company doing that no one else is?, ” I wrote in my post. “Hone in on this. If you don’t differentiate yourself from the competition, you won’t get noticed.”

So let’s hone. Of course, we’re not over in the marketing departments, so we’re spared having to write copy to sell widgets on the TV shopping networks. But as Daniel Pink says in his book “To Sell is Human,” we are all in one way or another, in the business of selling things. So let’s accept this gracefully and get to it.

So how do we differentiate ourselves from the competition without a sales pitch? Here’s one approach worth its brevity and boldness:

Don’t use buzzwords. 

It’s that simple. Aren’t all great expressions boilable down to just three words? “He left me.” “I love you,” “You did what?” Wait, is boilable even a word? In the service of wit, I solemnly declare that it is.

One working definition of buzzwords that I like from is: “a trendy word or phrase that is used more to impress than explain.”

Wait, it gets even better. They write:  “A buzzword spends only a fraction of its life being used; the rest of the time it is being abused. The result is a phenomenon known as buzzword backlash, whereby the tide turns against a buzzword and it starts to fade from usage.”

Let’s take an example. I made this one up so don’t go searching for it online: “Our brain surgeons are uniquely qualified to perform neurosurgery through innovative protocols conducted at state-of-the art facilities.” 

Have you spotted the buzzwords? How many of you are impressed? Not even a little bit? Point made.

First, everyone or every organization is unique in their own, um, unique way, so if you are uniquely qualified then tell us how so or why. Maybe all your brain surgeons are “ranked in the top 10% by the “American Society of Brain Surgeons.” Or “they all know the Sesame Street characters and jingles by heart.” Whatever your differentiating factor, if it’s credible and meaningful to your audience then use it; don’t mask it with a buzzword. The truth is always much more engaging than your buzzword version of it.

The same goes for words like “state-of-the-art” or “innovative.” You may have to dig a bit to find the “hidden justification” behind these terms. In the above example, you could explain what makes your facilities “state-of-the art.” For example, maybe you’re using one of the new robotic surgical machines. Did you say, robots? Now, ears are perking up. If you’re worried that your audience might be suspicious of robots that operate on their brain, then you have a chance to discuss this new technology and how it benefits them. Either way, you now have a conversation starter for social media. Communications is now all about conversations, not throwing jargon or buzzwords at your audience. So have one.

I once wrote about a “state of the art” machine that could analyze seed samples for their mineral content (or something to that effect) without requiring a team of technicians in white lab coats hovering about and holding chromatograms up to the light. There were many technical differentiating factors I could have droned on about, but these would be of little interest to the non-scientific audience we were trying to reach.

Instead, I wrote about how this new technology could get us from point A to B, painting a picture of why B was so worthwhile a target. I also noted that the machine took up no more space than a “desktop photocopier.” This visual conveyed the ease with which it could be shipped and nicely deployed in the corner of a lab to work its magic wherever it was needed. It also captured the wow factor of getting all that technology into a small package in a way everyone could relate to without going into the specs that only excite scientists. I took something abstract and made it concrete.

In another instance, I broke down “innovation” by talking about how another new technology reduced the time it took to get from point A to B “from several weeks to a matter of days, ” and again, why it mattered.

When you use this approach, you’re treating your audience as intelligent beings, not as cave people of eons ago. You are showing that you care enough about their time and attention to explain things in ways that make sense to them. What makes these two last two examples resonate? One technology saves space, and the other saves time–everyone from a scientist to a homemaker can relate to that.

Review your work and look to see if buzzwords have taken root. Then, see how you could have avoided those terms and engaged your audience by unmasking the truth behind the buzzwords. As you become more vigilant, you’ll be able to spot a buzzword a mile away. You will see how to meaningfully differentiate your company or organization and its work from most of your competitors. Your overall communications and (and marketing) will begin to hit home. Both you and your audience will come out ahead. When you connect with your audience, you can have a conversation. It’s a win-win. Mea culpa.

One caveat: not all buzzwords have reached the stage of being abused and there may be times they work as shortcuts, often in daily transactional conversations, eg. “She’s out of pocket.” So this is not a blanket ruling against them. However, in nine out of ten instances they are being abused and statistics tell us where we likely fall. So when you’re communicating professionally, I suggest avoiding them as much as possible.

On a side note, in my last job, I banned the use of the word “innovation.” I scrutinized everything that came across my desk with an eagle eye to expunge this offensive word. I had fun coming up with new creative ways to get the point across. Now, if that’s not being innovative, then I don’t know what is.

Let the buzzword backlash begin!

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