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Jargon, Acronyms, and Ignorance in Messaging

Jacob Brain


The biggest challenge in marketing is not budget, nor is it the reach-to-frequency rate. It’s the words we use, and how we go about using them.


Words matter. In fact, they matter tremendously.

I just had a coffee with an “MSP”. Do you know what that is? Well, every MSP thinks that phrase is a common as Kleenex – but it’s not. By the way, it’s short for managed services provider. Still not sure what that means? Read on.

Who picks the words?

Here is the problem as I see it.

As we become entrenched in our professions, we start to gather terms, words, and acronyms that help us to communicate better. This is why our military uses acronyms or shorthand so often – they can communicate a lot with few words. It’s brilliant efficiency in communication.

The problem is that the process breaks down when the other person (the recipient) does not know what your word or acronym means.

Now, we all think they do. Or at least, we think they should. But more times than not, they don’t.

But that’s the easy problem to solve. Generally, it’s easy to convince a client of ours that language is confusing when it’s completely internal.

What about entire industries that circle around terms and acronyms that don’t mean anything to the potential end customer? Or the phraseology that comes out of trying to redefine an entire service (eg. inbound marketing)? It sounds brilliant, but the clients, unless they’ve drank the Kool-Aid themselves, are in the dark.

Another good way to understand this challenge: have you ever entered into a conversation with a potential client and seen the “glaze” come over them? You’ve probably started to use words and phrases that they don’t know, and they’re too afraid to tell you that they don’t know them because it makes them feel dumb.

But in reality, you’re the dummy. Because they don’t want to hire someone who makes them feel dumb.

So how do we bridge this language gap?

Using Accurate Words

The best solution we’ve found to this issue is using what I’d call “accurate” words. Now, before you English and philosophy majors start posting in my comments, I know that there is a big asterisk on the term “accurate” as I’m using it.

Words in themselves are approximations. They attempt to encapsulate feelings, histories, intentions, emotions, all in the bounds of a few tiny strokes. Yet, much to our dismay, they fail time and time again to accomplish that task.

But, we have hope. We have hope that, if our words have one particularly valuable attribute, we’ll be able to use them to gain a measure of clarity. It’s an attribute that, if we can get near it, would promise to bring some value to our clients.

It’s commonality.

What words are most commonly used to explain what we do?

Are you a “licensed auto repair specialist”, or an “auto mechanic”? I’ll tell you that one outranks the other in google search by a very large margin. Because it’s simply the more common choice of words.

Now, many of you white collar businesses hate the idea of commonality. You’ve spent somewhere between four to ten years in school, and thousands on marketing consulting so that you can be something beyond common. It’s actually the last thing we ever want to become. I understand your pain.

But that does not have anything to do with your clients. They are not idiots, but they are not in your world. They don’t know your phrases, acronyms, and jargon. They are just trying to express needs in their voices, their words, in ways that they understand. And the truth is, that means words that are more common than our specialized language.

So, there’s the rub. You need to market their needs – in their words.

Firm Footing in Messaging

So, now that you understand the bigger issue, how do you approach your messaging with the right words?

The simple answer is that you have to ask.

You have to ask your clients, ask your prospects, and do the research – find out what words they use to speak about your product or service. Find the words they use to convey value.

If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. The hard part is actually doing it.

There seems to be some level of self-inflicted ignorance in much of our corporate think tanks. The common sentiment is that “we know better” or “we know what they really want”. In many cases, you do, but in this area, I’d ask you to consider the reality that you don’t.

The path is set before you. Are you going to bow to the common language of your customer, or beat them senseless with your meaningless jargon?

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