How to stop speaking stupid

Jack Blog

April 27th, 2015 By Joe Panepinto PhD


Recently, a colleague and I were interviewing the CEO of a large multinational company in his office in Stamford, Connecticut, and he told us something simple but profound: “Words matter.”

Ok, sure. Words have mattered since humans began using them to replace charcoal scribbles on cave walls—why should they matter more today?

More importantly, why should they matter more for today’s businesses? Because today everyone’s a publisher.

Every company—whether it sells socks, super-sonic jets or (dare-I-say-it) solutions—has to publish extensively online and across social media channels and formats.

Today, 70% of B2B enterprise marketers say they’re creating more content than they did a year ago. ChartBeat estimates that there are 92,000 articles posted to the web every day—many of them coming from companies like yours.

Because as today’s marketers know, most of the sale (nearly 60% of it, according to Google and CEB) is done long before anyone talks to someone at your company or a retail outlet that carries your stuff (if you’re selling B2C).

Not long ago words mattered for a company’s ad campaigns and product packaging and that was about it. If anyone wanted to know more about them or their products and services, companies figured, they’d call or ask someone.

No longer.

Regardless of whether your company is introducing, ramping up, or is just figuring out what the heck a “content marketing program” is all about, people are learning about your company through the words you use online, across channels and media.

And that means you must be diligent to avoid that killer of clarity—jargon.

One of the most interesting insights to come out of a recent Forrester Research Customer Experience event I attended in New York was this:

Speak to me in language I understand” is among only three universal drivers of customer experience. (The other two are, not surprisingly, “make me feel valued” and “resolve my issues quickly.”)

It’s obvious but important to remember: People don’t buy things they don’t understand. And they don’t buy things from people or web sites or sell sheets they don’t understand either.

So here are a few suggestions on how to get to clear, simple words that matter:

  • Explain it to a child. Whether real or imaginary (real is better) explaining what you do or sell to a child is humbling at the same time it’s instructive and great verbal exercise.
  • Go “extra-environmental”. We can’t see the things we’re totally immersed in. So to be clear, we have to step outside ourselves and our comfortable worlds (which are filled with way too many verbal tics, jargon and insider-isms).
  • Tweet it. If you need more than 140 characters, maybe it’s too complicated. Try again please. (“Honey, get me re-write.”). A great Harvard Business Review article “Can You say What Your Strategy Is?” suggested it be 35 words or less.

Simple advice, really, but difficult to follow. And I’m as guilty as anyone of going all “buzzword Bingo” and sounding like I spent a little too much time in detention at the Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Don’t Read Good.

But in an attempt to keep myself honest (and speaking and writing clearly) I try to keep in mind the lessons I learned from two short books: On Bullshit; and Why Do Business People Speak Like Idiots?

That way, when I find myself leaning in to write a genuinely customer-focused value-added deliverable solution, they remind me what I should be reminding myself—K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid).