Written by Emily Sayes
Published on 25th Jun, 2018
Do you feel stupid, excluded, downright deluded? What about your readers?
I decided to buy my first proper camera the other day. It was a big purchase. An “investment” according to my dad. I went to the camera store and explained to the shop assistant that I was a novice who was looking for a camera suitable for a beginner. Well, I haven’t entered a camera store since.
Said shop assistant, a self-proclaimed “camera nerd” (his words, not mine), responded with “well, you could go for the Nikon D5600. It’s fully equipped with a large 24.2 megapixel DX-format image sensor, has an ISO range of 100-25600 and an expanded ISO sensitivity of 6400 in night landscape mode. Sound like you?”
I was so traumatised by the experience that I resorted to purchasing my first camera online, behind the safety of my screen, self-perceived intelligence still intact – just.
The term ‘jargon’ is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’. This includes legal jargon (‘ratio decidendi’ – the principle of the case), medical jargon (‘deep-vein thrombosis’ – a blood clot) and IT jargon (‘the cloud’ – contrary to popular belief, the cloud is a network of servers, not a fluffy white thing in the sky). The Oxford Dictionary offers a secondary definition: ‘a form of language regarded as barbarous, debased, or hybrid’. Buzzwords and acronyms come under this umbrella. Take the travel industry for example. Are you going on a vacation or a staycation (domestic holiday), camping or glamping (glamorous camping, usually in a teepee, wifi included), for a bizcation or bleisure (a “work trip”)?
By its very definition, then, jargon is the opposite of plain English. To write in plain English is to write in ‘layman’s terms’. It emphasises clarity and avoids overly complex language.
In the world of content marketing, plain English is what we strive for. Jargon, on the other hand, is outlawed. Described as the ‘unofficial bible of English’, George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language lists as one of six writing commandments: ‘Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.’ Why?
For starters, no-one wants to be the amateur in the camera store. Did I feel stupid? Sure. Did I feel excluded from the world of ‘proper camera-using people’? You bet. No-one likes to feel this way. John Lanchester writes in his book How to Speak Money that the language of money - finance jargon - is used to make ‘outsiders’ feel excluded from the discussion. Money, argues Lanchester, is the ‘language of power’. Most financial concepts are not hard to grasp; rather, it’s the language associated with money that prevents a large segment of the population from engaging in financial discourse.*
Marketing, on the other hand, is about engaging with your audience and including them in the story. In order to sell an idea, a story or a product, your audience needs to be spoken to, not excluded from the conversation.
Ironically, we often resort to jargon to appear more authoritative and conceal gaps in our knowledge. It’s akin to wearing frames without a lens. Mason Cooley put it well when he said that jargon is “part ceremonial robe, part false beard”. The problem with this approach is that jargon tends to lack specificity, rendering a piece of writing confusing, meaningless or lacking in substance. Ambiguity trips the reader up, and exposes a piece of writing to multiple interpretations. In order to convey a message effectively, we need to communicate clearly and plainly.
But should we apply an absolute zero-tolerance policy to jargon in the world of content marketing? I believe that jargon does have its place. In fact, it can make a piece of content more effective. The trick is knowing when, and how, to use it.
Who are you talking to?
Industry jargon is shorthand for well-understood concepts within a particular field or group. It makes sense, then, that jargon is useful for targeted communication. We see this all the time; in professions, in sports reporting – try getting a non-fan to listen to the Twenty20** cricket commentary.
Speaking ‘the language’ means to speak to a group in the same way they communicate amongst themselves. It shows your audience that you ‘get it’. You’re familiar with their field, perhaps even expert. You’re including them by including yourself in the conversation. For example:
It could be said that B2B marketing communications has greater scope for industry-infused jargon.
Given this blog post is targeting content marketers, I am entitled to assume that my audience is familiar with the meaning of ‘B2B’, and by incorporating it into my ‘copy’ (ditto), you’ll pick up on the fact that I am familiar with the industry.
But tread carefully: while some words are considered ‘industry specific’, they may rarely be used in the industry themselves. Remember Elle Woods explaining mens rea to a courtroom of seasoned lawyers?*** Legally Blonde is far from realistic but her learned friends’ reaction was spot on.
Similarly, and to quote Ron Kaufman, “industry jargon may not be the language your customer understands”. In rare cases, jargon is effective in B2C communications too, but only if your customer is familiar with the language. A high-end makeup retailer will advertise their range of primers without the need for an explanation, safe in the knowledge that their customer base knows damn well primer is essential for flawless coverage, day in, day out. Duh.
Cognitive ease please
Cognitive ease is the measure of the brain’s ability to process information. When it comes to reading, we can ease the ‘cognitive load’ on our brains in a number of ways: legibility, a lack of distractions, typeface, formatting, appropriate spacing and of course, clear and concise language. When reading a piece of text designed for cognitive ease, the brain is relaxed, legs up, a glass of red in one hand.
On the other hand, when the font type is illegible, the page is distracting, the text is confusing or the message conveyed is ambiguous, the reader experiences cognitive strain, characterised by laborious thinking patterns and a sense of distrust. The writing has become an obstacle course for the brain, not a stroll in the park.
Of course, this isn’t the goal of content marketing. We want our readers to absorb our message and enjoy the process of engaging with our writing. In his book Thinking, fast and slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that when you experience cognitive ease, you’re more content, agreeable and more trusting. One way to create cognitive ease when writing copy is to invoke a sense of familiarity, by using language that the reader is familiar with. Therein lies a compelling case for appropriate use of jargon.
“All in moderation, dear”
Minimalism is all the rage right now, and it doesn’t just apply to your wardrobe staples. While a dash of jargon here and there can enhance a piece of work, we risk muddying the message when used in excess.
Marketing veteran Ann Handley, in her bestseller Everybody Writes (Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content), says of buzzwords and jargon: “You can use them, and maybe one or two used sparingly don’t matter. But use too many of them and they become toxic”. Too many cooks spoil the broth, so to speak.
‘Cloud computing is an information technology paradigm that enables ubiquitous access to shared pools of configurable system resources and higher-level services that can be rapidly provisioned with minimal management effort, often over the Internet.’
‘We utilise revenue-focused marketing automation combined with targeted end-user engagement strategies to maximise your ROMI.’
Chances are you’re familiar with one or two of the words used in the preceding examples. But did you understand the message? I’m inclined to say no, unless you consulted our dear friend Prof. Google that is. And just like that, you’ve lost interest, I’ve lost a reader and, if fishing for a conversion, I’ve lost a potential sale too.
As my grandma would say “all in moderation, dear.”
Use it, don’t abuse it
So there you have it. Now that we’ve deep dived into this copy pain point, let’s wrap it up with an overview of what I hope will set the foundation for a paradigm shift in the golden rules of content marketing. Customer-centric jargon can be a real value-add, provided you consider your target market, generate cognitive ease, and strive for quality over quantity.
Couldn’t have put it better myself, could I?
*In the film The Big Short, Ryan Gosling ‘breaks the fourth wall’ (theatre jargon for when an actor breaks out of character to acknowledge the audience) to introduce Margot Robbie explaining subprime mortgages. Other than a clever cameo opportunity, the directors kept the audience engaged by interspersing the narrative with explanations of financial terms encountered throughout the movie. All I can say is, thank-you Margot.
**For less-than-enthused cricket spectators, Twenty20 is a short form cricket game where two teams have a single innings each, which is restricted to a maximum of 20 overs. Confused? Exactly my point.
***Criminal Law 101 teaches the budding law student that the elements of a crime are actus reus (Latin for a “guilty act”) and mens rea (Latin for a “guilty mind”). Neither word is used in practice; rather, plain English with a twang of ‘legalese’ (legal jargon) is preferred.
Content marketing is a major focus for service and product businesses. Andrea Stevens discusses its editorial rather than advertorial focus, and reviews two excellent international examples.
One of the biggest truisms in communications is “know your audience.”