Is poor use of language holding brands back from true engagement?

Jamie Anderson, president, EMEA at Marketo, discusses the dangers of poor use of language in marketing.


Which one of these two sentences was produced by a nonsense generator, and which was written by a human?

‘This is no time to bite the bullet with our regenerated incremental paradigm shifts.’

‘You really can’t fail with facilitating monitored capability.’

I’ll answer that later, but regardless of their origin, both are tricky to understand. They may have meaning but working out what it is requires more effort than it’s worth. And with that, you’ve lost your prospect.

Marketing is communication

Marketing is, at its heart, communication. We’re people talking to people but within marketing that’s not always something we’re very good at. Often awkward and impenetrable, the worst aspects of marketing’s language are invading the way business speaks not only to itself but also to its customers. When we say ‘leverage’ instead of use, ‘going forward’ instead of in the future and ‘optimise’ instead of improve, we’re swapping clarity for confusion. It’s far better to say what you mean, not what you think it means.

To avoid clarity does our trade a disservice. At its best marketing distils ideas into language that’s memorable, easy to understand and resonates with people. It takes clarity of thought to do this, and before you even get to pitch an idea you need clarity of language to shape those thoughts. That is the importance of using language well. It enables you to realise ideas. If, as a marketer, you are ever stuck with developing a creative, try explaining what it does in a couple of sentences. If you can’t, chances are it won’t strike a chord with your audience either.

Internal and external communication

How we talk between ourselves influences how we talk to our customers. The culture of language in your organisation, and the degree to which it’s valued and understood, is like the culture of equality. It directly affects how people behave and, in this case, how they communicate not only with each other but with customers. It’s easy to say that this document isn’t customer-facing or that we’ll never use those words when we communicate publicly but, if your people are used to talking that way, it can be difficult to change tack.

How we communicate publicly is how our customers, and everyone else, perceives us. Clear, concise use of written language makes us look and feel human, just as it does in spoken conversation. Most importantly, it develops trust. Speak a language that customers understand, and you meet them in their world, not yours. Jargon itself is not the issue. It’s when it’s used in gummed-together strips of long sentences that it becomes part of the problem.

Simplicity builds trust

By making language clear and simple to understand, it shows that you have nothing to hide. Although it seems basic, stuff like this builds trust and makes you seem authentic. It takes courage to speak clearly and concisely, at a time where many are hiding behind waffle. A fearless marketer should be direct.

Having a rich and complex language gives us the tools to communicate well. On the other hand, it also enables us to do the opposite, but this development of language is a fundamental part of what makes us human. The ability to articulate our feelings through language is how we connect with one another. We have to be careful not to move away from this, especially in our industry.

To hide meaning behind complexity is a betrayal of this freedom – we’re allowed to say what we mean, so why make it difficult to understand? Let’s not squander it by allowing obfuscation and fog to dim our view. Those examples at the beginning are both obscure and foggy. Both are also computer generated, but made from phrases composed by humans. It’s telling that it requires no intelligence to gum together these strips of words to create what looks like meaning, but in fact is just the opposite. We should use our intelligence to make sure what we say always has meaning.

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