As a freelance copywriter and lover of words, there’s nothing I hate more than soulless language. Marketing jargon is exactly that; artificial shorthand created to make the user sound more authoritative than he or she actually is. George Carlin famously referred to it as “soft language.”
“Smug, greedy well-fed white people have invented a language that’s intended to conceal their sins,” he said.
Oh, alright. I just have to get this out of my system before we go any further (skip this video if you don't have 7 minutes to spare):
Man, he was good.
Why Does Jargon Even Exist?
According to Merriam-Webster, jargon is:
a : confused unintelligible language
b : a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect
c : a hybrid language or dialect simplified in vocabulary and grammar and used for communication between peoples of different speech
2: the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group
3: obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words
So the only practical use of jargon is as specialized vocabulary between professionals in highly-trained fields such as medicine or technology. That makes sense, but in terms of business storytelling, jargon in no way inspires human connections between customers and organizations or brands.
We’re all guilty of using buzzwords from time to time.
Before we go any further, look: I know. I know that we’ve all at some point used one or two or all of the words I’m going to dissect below, and I swear I’m not judging you. You aren’t a bad person for falling under the heady spell of marketing buzz-language.
Using buzzwords and jargon is the same thing as wanting to fit in with the popular clique in high school, despite the fact that they were actually vacuous douches who were experiencing the best years of their lives and had nowhere to go but down from there.
It’s irresistible. No one’s a bad person for wanting to fit in.
But we can do better. We owe our audience more than generic doublespeak we’ve picked up from the marketing hive-mind. We owe them our genuine, vulnerable, passionate, individual voices.
Jargon is a trust-killer.
The first step in creating an audience relationship is to gain trust. Connection, confidence, and transparency are what trust is built upon.
Jargon undermines all of this. By using slick, buzzword-laden language, companies risk alienating the clients they seek. It makes people feel confused, suspicious, and left out.
For the most part, especially in business storytelling, jargon needs to die, die, die.
And also be killed.
Buzzwords are jargon with beards, ironic t-shirts, and skinny jeans.
Is there a difference between buzzwords and jargon? Nah. Buzzwords are just trendy marketing terms adopted into business vernacular that eventually become good old-fashioned corporate B.S.
The use of buzzwords, unfortunately, is endemic in the world of digital copywriting. I can’t begin to count the times in the past week I’ve seen the term “thought leader” in my Twitter feed--as a self-description in one’s profile.
It’s the same thing as if I introduced myself like this: “Congratulations: you are in the presence of a content writing guru. Go ahead and shed your worldly goods, ‘subscribe’ to my ‘blog’ (translation: join my cult), and prepare to be Enlightened. You’re welcome.”
Really inspires trust, doesn’t it? Don’t you feel like you’ve gotten to know the kind of person I am?
(But seriously, subscribe to my blog because it’s the cool thing to do. No worldly-good-shedding required.)
Ok, so I was out of the corporate world for a few years while I stayed at home to raise my boys. Maybe I missed the “We’re All Corporate Cyborgs Now” conference. But honestly, guys: what happened to just saying what you mean?
I recently took on a blogging project for a client who works in the technology industry. I researched some websites and as I scanned a tech company landing page, my eyes started to glaze, then cross, then bleed, then I ripped both eyeballs out and I apologized to them and promised I had done the right thing for putting them out of their misery.
At least that’s what happened in my head.
What happened in reality is I read this:
“…is your complete solution provider for turnkey [removed for anonymity] solutions.”
And then I read this:
“…helps internal stakeholders develop [redacted] management solutions to manage [censored] while also improving their operational efficiencies and reducing risk. We work with clients to pinpoint the ideal technological, data-based solution that is then customized to meet their [bleep] for optimal engagement.”
Now, I realize I removed some identifying nouns to protect the innocent, but…
Does anyone have a freaking clue as to what this company does?
I didn’t think so.
The Obligatory List of Bullsh*t Buzzwords
I’ve been reluctant to make a list of clichéd vocabulary for this post; after all, the “listicle” blog post format has become a cliché unto itself.
But I’m feeling pretty meta, so here we go:
(Note: some of these terms are legitimate when used as they were originally intended, i.e. “growth hacker” as coined by Sean Ellis, but have become over-used and often misinterpreted.)
B.S. usage: We’ve created a list of actionable concepts for growth hacking.
Silly usage: Our home-distilled absinthe is an intoxicating and actionable alternative to grain alcohol.
No-B.S. alternative: Practical, applicable, ready-to-use, easily implemented.
Agnostic (in anything other than religion or IT)
B.S. usage: Our current advertising budget is media-agnostic.
Silly usage: Switzerland was an ally-agnostic nation in World War II.
No-B.S. alternative: Compatible, equal opportunity, unbiased, neutral.
Trivial side-note: Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of Brave New World author Aldous Huxley, created the term “agnostic” to describe his doubt of the existence of God and his willingness to reserve conclusion until verifiable evidence one way or the other is presented. It’s a remarkable coincidence the word is now part of the techno-babble of our brave new world.
Bandwidth (again, in anything other than IT)
B.S. usage: Do you have the bandwidth to implement this inbound marketing campaign?
Silly usage: These jeans lack the bandwidth to contain my substantial booty.
No-B.S. alternative: Time, availability, space in schedule, room, capacity.
B.S. usage: We provide the analytics to manage your firm’s big data.
Silly usage: Yo mama’s android’s positronic brain has so much memory, she calls him Lieutenant Commander Big Data.
No-B.S. alternative: (Unless you’re Google or Facebook, the chances of your firm actually having terabytes of data to analyze are minimal) Information, data sets, marketing feedback.
B.S. usage: We’re the next big buzzword in social.
Silly usage: “Buzzword” is the latest buzzword in buzzwords.
No-B.S. alternative: trend, fashion, innovative idea, jargon
Bootstrap (as a verb)
B.S. usage: We bootstrapped our way from startup to success.
Silly usage: My pappy bootstrapped his way up yonder mountain in 10 feet of snow with no straps on his boots.
No-B.S. alternative: worked, earned, struggled, was resourceful,
B.S. usage: Our core competencies are exceptional client-centric deliverables and disruptive innovation.
Silly usage: See above.
No-B.S. alternative: Competitive edge, unique strengths, distinguishing factors
B.S. usage: We pride ourselves in our user-centric solutions.
Silly usage: I don’t want to sound self-centric, but I wish my husband would be more wife-centric and less football-centric.
No-B.S. alternative: Centered, focused, supportive.
B.S. usage: Our external stakeholders demand deliverables immediately upon completion.
Silly usage: Your deliverables are free if they aren’t hot, fresh, and at your door in 30 minutes or less.
No-B.S. alternative: Product, result, report, goods
B.S. usage: The viral social media approach is so bleeding-edge it’s disruptive.
Silly usage: The aglet was the most disruptive invention in the shoelace space.
No-B.S. alternative: Innovative, ground-breaking, revolutionary, radical
Drill-down (in anything other than IT)
B.S. usage: Let’s get together and drill-down the issues with this client.
Silly usage: I need to have a serious drill-down on where that smell is coming from.
No-B.S. alternative: Discuss, investigate, explore, hash out.
B.S. usage: Our unpaid intern is the social media evangelist for our blog.
Silly usage: There’s nothing more exciting than getting cornered by a CrossFit evangelist at a party.
No-B.S. alternative: Promote, market, sell, recommend
B.S. usage: Here are some growth-hacking tips for your Fortune 500 corporation’s Facebook page.
Silly usage: Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce were the original growth hackers.
No-B.S.: Social media marketing, search engine optimization, online marketing.
B.S. usage: Here are some simple hacks to get the most out of your e-mail marketing.
Silly usage: My Bubbe gave me some great hacks for making matzoh-ball soup.
No-B.S. alternative: Shortcuts, tips, advice, ideas
B.S. usage: We’re having a strategy meeting to ideate blog topics.
Silly usage: Archemides ideated the law of displacement in his bathtub.
No-B.S. alternative: Brainstorm, dream up, think of, imagine, conceive
B.S. usage: Increased customer satisfaction will help brands leverage testimonials.
Silly usage: Preschoolers use tantrums to leverage more TV time out of their exhausted
No-B.S. : gain, create, manipulate, exploit, utilize, use, position, take advantage
B.S. usage: The merger created a disruptive synergy of channel-agnostic, user-centric ideation that leveraged more bandwidth for growth-hacking.
Silly usage: The skort is an example of skirt-short synergy.
No-B.S. alternative: Combination, collaboration, cooperation, interaction.
B.S. usage: We’re your complete provider of actionable customer engagement solutions.
Silly usage: Starbucks provides caffeine-deficiency solutions.
No-B.S. alternative: Tools, products, software, processes, technologies.
B.S usage: The turnkey software solution can be integrated with any OS-agnostic system.
Silly usage: The public library is a turnkey information solution.
No-B.S. alternative: Comprehensive, ready-to-use, complete
B.S. usage: We regard ourselves as a thought leader in the growth hacking space.
Silly usage: My Uncle Ernie is a thought leader in the Fox News comment section.
No-B.S. alternatives: Expert, authority, influencer, advisor, mentor
B.S. usage: Here are some hacks for making your startup a unicorn
Silly usage: If I win big in Vegas, I’ll be on my way to becoming a self-made unicorn!
No-B.S.: $1-billion startup. Guess what “decacorn” means. No, really. “Decacorn.”
Newspeak vs. You-speak
I remember reading Orwell’s 1984 as a middle-schooler. I was chilled by the notion of Newspeak, the abbreviated language invented by the totalitarian state of Oceana that suppressed revolutionary thoughts such as freedom, individuality, and truth. It was the first time I realized the act of thinking isn’t just an internal process. Thought is external, too; the language we are taught shapes the way we perceive the world.
If you pay attention not only to what people say, but also to how they say it, so many things can be revealed about who they are: what they believe in, how they want the world to see them, even what scares them about the world. It’s what I love about language; there’s so much that can be said with a single, carefully chosen word.
So the next time you’re writing an article, e-mail, blog post, or tweet, (or you’re having content written for you), ask yourself:
· Is this word essential to the story I want to tell?
· Is this how the voice in my head sounds?
· Will my audience need a definition for this word?
· Does this sound natural when read aloud?
· Is there any reason using a buzzword instead of saying what I really mean will win the trust of my audience?
When you avoid the use of jargon, you let your voice and your story shine through. So let’s all make a promise to ourselves and our audience: from now on, no more B.S. Let’s start using revelatory language that creates lasting emotional connections.
In other words, let’s implement an actionable content solution that will leverage synergistic deliverables.
Sorry. I couldn’t resist.
On that note, take it, Weird Al!