Marketing | How to speak: ‘administrative adjudication’ or ‘Whopper with fries’

Drop your work-specific jargon to create an easy-to-understand message

By Joe Lilly

How many times have you left your doctor’s or lawyer’s office frustrated because he or she spoke to you in words you could not easily understand? They are not trying to be insulting. They use those same words and phrases daily without realizing that the rest of the world doesn’t speak that way.

Likewise, many government officials and business executives use bureaucratic words or phrases that make no sense to the average person. Would you ever use the terms “interagency councils,” “administrative adjudication” or “independent regulatory commission” at home? And when you ask your insurance company a question, you might hear that you need a “certificate of financial responsibility,” “declaration page” or “endorsement.” Huh?

Joe Lilly

This situation is not exclusive to any of these professions. We all have a certain lexicon at work, a communication “shortcut.” The mistake is believing that everyone else understands our way of speaking.

However, when you are speaking to your own customers or marketing your own product or service, you must be careful that you do not fall into that trap. Instead, you should use what I call “people speak.”

“People speak” is the simplest way to make a statement, free from technical terms, acronyms or “office speak.” It makes you sound human and will be easily understood by the masses.

While conducting media training sessions, I often use examples of real quotes that hit or missed the mark. Consider this one:

“The city is cognizant of the anxiety that may incur with the impression that hazardous weather is imminent but hopes that the policy to proceed on the side of caution is appreciated.”

Now compare that quote with this:

“Most people in my ward pay about a Whopper a day in property taxes. Some people with a little more expensive homes may pay a Whopper with cheese or maybe a Whopper with fries.”

See the difference? The first is a jumble of words, while the second tells a story to which you can relate.

Evaluate your own marketing messages. Are they simple and easily understandable, or are they filled with abbreviations or terms you use but your customers don’t? You have just a few seconds for your message to have an impact. Will you waste it with words or phrases that mean nothing to your audience?

While training a group of bankers in Cleveland, I zeroed in on one banker who kept using an excessive number of financial terms. Every time I’d ask him a question, I’d stop him at the first technical word he used. He became very frustrated because that was the only way he talked.

After working with him for several hours, I asked him to tell me, “What would you tell a customer about the unsettled state of the economy?” He responded, “I’d say, relax. The economy is like a bathtub of water. When you get into the tub, the water splashes, but then it settles back down. Just like that tub of water, the economy is going through some ripples, but it will settle down soon and everything will be back to normal.”

And I said, “THAT’S the way you should speak!”

Avoid technical or office jargon and tell your story simply. You’ll be much more effective, and your audience will be more likely to buy what you’re selling.


Joe Lilly is a communications consultant in Louisville. Contact him at [email protected].

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