Why adland should steer clear of the language barrier

language and words - Image by Gerd Altmann Pixabay

From the financial markets to the tech sector, and from law to PR and marketing, people can’t help but get wrapped up in the language of their industry.

As journalists we’ve always believed that simple language is the best for communicating, otherwise you lose your audience.

So we’re right behind David Clayton, Founder of True & North, who says the advertising sector also needs to re-appraise its language use and get back to using simple terms in its day-to-day dealings…

David Clayton True and North Portrait, Photo: AMMP/Iyanka Cooray

If you’ve been reading news reports from the recent World Economic Forum at Davos, you may have been perplexed by some of the mystifying language spewing forth from politicians’ and thinkers’ mouths: all ‘economic iron curtains’, ‘shift-lefts’ and ‘trust-shoring’. 

To anybody working in advertising, this is just garden variety stuff. For years, empty jargon and brain-befuddling buzzwords have been an unavoidable part of our professional lives. 

Growth hacking, snackable content, ‘socialising’ a document, agile culture, lining up ducks in a row – all get tossed around with liberal abandon, whether it’s during painstaking pitches or on the mission statements of corporate websites. 

Vague terms

The trouble is, many of these idioms are vague umbrella terms that mean different things to different people. 

If you’re investing a large chunk of your budget to drive “organic reach”, does that mean online users naturally stumbling upon your content or will you be forking out for online communities to share it? 

If you’re joining a “dynamic and challenging team”, your workplace experience will be different if the team is run by a toxic manager rather than somebody more tolerant (for more on homonymous jargon in advertising, check out Ben Hay’s excellent blog here. 

It would almost be laughable were it not for the fact advertising is an industry full of people who are supposedly experts on communication. Simple messaging is advertising 101. 

It runs through the DNA of every successful campaign (just think of Innocent Drinks’ mission to “talk to the consumer like you’d talk to your friends”). 

So why can’t we do it in our daily dealings with each other? 

Image by Наталия Когут Pixabay
Search for meaning: You’re not alone if industry jargon leaves you lost and confused.

Perhaps given advertising’s obsession with trends, an eagerness to deploy the latest buzzword, or mot du jour, isn’t surprising. 

But jargon, by its definition, is exclusive. Your audience can’t join the conversation unless they are ‘in the know’. It leaves them feeling confused and alienated, and can foster deep-seated insecurity. 

In this age when employee inclusivity and mental wellbeing is more important than ever, is this really where we want to be heading?

Shady jargon

There is a shadier aspect to jargon, which politicians and dubious CEOs are particularly fond of: Using impenetrable language buries bad news. 

Just think of all the euphemisms used for firing people: downsizing, rightsizing, streamlining, synergising, optimising, recycling the talent pool…  might an audience assume you are trying to deceive them?

Jargon doesn’t just bewilder: it also makes bad business sense too. If you’re old enough to remember 1990s’ computers, you’ll also remember the dizzyingly complex vernacular surrounding them: defragmenting disks, RAM, DOS. You’d need a computer science degree to understand it (in fact, these acronyms aren’t so different to cryptocurrencies now!). 

bad language
Bad language: Industry buzzwords can confuse and alienate.

Then along came Apple with its consumer-friendly tech and packaging that any idiot can use. Steve Jobs knew that the best way to win the trust of consumers was to speak their language, rather than giving them the mental labour of trying to understand ‘you’. 

‘Nail the brief’

So how can you communicate more clearly in business? At True & North we run ‘Nail the brief’ workshops where we get advertising folk to distil briefs to their essence, cleansing them of any empty jargon or buzzwords. 

Here are three simple tips: 

  1. Put yourself in the shoes of your audience.  How do they speak? Try to focus on common ground rather than just switching your lingo for theirs. Note: attempting to be ‘down with the kids’ by using Gen Z slang such as “cheugy” or “Iykyk” is just cringeworthy and a bit creepy too.
  2. Expel bad jargon wherever you see it. When developing a pitch, if you find a pesky buzzword that either you, your audience or even your granny wouldn’t understand, delete it. 
  3. Get a second (and a third and a fourth) opinion. A different perspective always helps. If you’re in the know, you might fail to see how some of your language is not part of universal vernacular.

All too often, you’ll find the heaviest users of jargon use buzzwords because it hides a lack of conviction in their ideas. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then bamboozling others with lingo they don’t understand disguises this. 

As Byron Sharp, director of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute (the world’s largest centre for marketing research) has said, “Fake words, like acronyms, show your focus is internal and not consumer-centric.”

He’s right. True connection – which is what we’re all trying to achieve in the ad industry – is based on mutual understanding that can only come through clear communication. 

And you’ll never click with consumers, clients or colleagues if you’re speaking a language they can’t comprehend.