Words without waffle

9th October 2020

Marketing communications isn’t complicated. It may be difficult but it isn’t complicated. All it takes is identifying a group of people likely to buy a product or service, and then working out what to say to them and how to say it in order to make them more likely to buy.

I suppose we can be just as reductive about space exploration – all it takes is making a tin can that people can sit in and firing it into space – but making ads isn’t as complicated as rocket science. Unfortunately however, we have a bit of an inferiority complex about what we do. Ads just aren’t serious enough sometimes. So we make the whole business sound serious, using big grown-up words to describe normal everyday things like why people like or dislike adverts. This is silly but entirely expected. It’s the same mechanism by which dustbin men become known as waste disposal operatives, and cleaning companies come to provide hygiene solutions.

There’s another entirely normal mechanism at work too, which is the need for a group – any group – to define itself partly through shared language. We talk the way we talk because we’re marcomms people. Lawyers have a language, engineers have a language, binmen have a language. And that’s ok, because there are some technical aspects to what these people do, just as there are to what we do, and technical tasks tend to require a specialised vocabulary.

In the last decade or so however we’ve been busy. We’ve adopted wholesale the language of the Silicon Valley technology company meeting. We no longer think, we ideate. We don’t learn, we dive deep. We don’t exploit opportunities, we leverage synergies. And all this new and in my view unnecessary complexity in how we communicate makes us appear at best less serious, and at worst less able to do our jobs. We promote clarity in messaging for our clients, but when we communicate ourselves we obfuscate, or use words with meanings so broad that we’re not really saying anything…

A search for ‘marketing language cartoons’ yields 144 million results, and at least one cartoonist is making a good living out of our inability to communicate clearly:

It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Which like the rocket science parallel earlier is a cliche, a lazy bit of communication that suggests a lazy bit of thinking. And that’s the problem: it’s easy to take the piss when someone says ‘leverage synergies’, but the real damage is to our ability to think for ourselves. If we use other people’s words we piggyback their thinking and lose the ability to be original.

What then do we do about the damage leveraging synergies might be causing? Well, for my part I’ve piggybacked someone else’s thinking. One of my favourite planners on Twitter is the inveterate list-maker Praveen Vaidyanathan. A while back he shared a list of bullshit words to avoid. I printed it, stuck it to my wall, and I’ve been trying (and often failing) to not use these words ever since. Here’s his list:

I don’t agree with everything here. Benchmarks are useful data points, and benchmarking is an important part of target setting. Optimising is one of the ways we improve the efficiency of media placement, and so on. Again, technical vocabulary is part of any job and not something to be ashamed of.

Nonetheless, I find the list very useful. Some words were originally technical but are now used so widely they’ve lost their meaning, like ‘agile’. Others have never really meant much, like ‘content’ or ‘engagement’. Others still are neologisms that we think sound clever like ‘operationalise’, there are all those things we now do in meetings, like ‘circle back’, ‘loop in’ and ‘reach out’, and there’s my personal pet hate, the word ‘consumer’, which we use all the time but which is reductive, dehumanising, and only ever a partial view of who people are and what makes them tick. (I still say it though, so this language thing is very much a work in progress).

We at Oi pride ourselves on offering brand new thinking. Our ability to communicate brand new thinking is either helped or hindered by the words we use. Words count; finding the right words therefore is a critical part of the job of communications people. So let’s run this up the flagpole and see who salutes. I for one won’t be saluting, and I’m making it my job to ensure the agency doesn’t either.