Almost universally, the great writing teachers tell us to avoid jargon, and to use small words instead of big words.
"We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon," writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well: 25th edition (Quill, 2001, p. 7). And in The Art of Readable Writing (Harper & Row, 1991, p. 127), Rudolph Flesch warns: "keep away from fancy words because you never can tell what they mean."
But in copywriting, there are certainly exceptions to this rule - times when a bigger or fancier word, or jargon, can command the reader's attention and persuade him more effectively than everyday prose.
The first exception is the use of big words to create a perception of enhanced value. For example, Mont Blanc doesn't call their product a "pen" in their catalog. They sell "writing instruments." Reason: people will pay $150 for a writing instrument. But they can buy a perfectly functional pen at CVS for a dollar.
In a similar vein, almost no one sells used cars any more. Today a used car is called a "certified pre-owned vehicle." Vehicle sounds more impressive than car. Pre-owned removes the stigma of used. And who certified your pre-owned BMW or Lexus? BMW and Lexus, of course.
Direct marketers know that the words you use do matter. Consultant Gary Hennerberg says that when Collin Street Bakery changed the name of its main product from "fruitcake" to "Native Texas Pecan Cake," mail order sales increased 60 percent.
Another reason to use jargon is to create a sense of affinity between the writer and the reader. You want the prospect to feel that you are part of his group, or at least know and understand him and his kind. But don't use insider jargon when writing to non-specialists.
Sociologist Susan Brownmiller defines jargon as "language more complex than the word it serves to communicate." Similarly, when editing the massive Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray's rule was that a definition could not contain a word more complex than the word being defined.
For example, a pilot may tell a flight attendant to instruct the passengers to deplane. But when the flight attendant passes this information on to passengers, she should just say "get off the plane."
The third application of jargon is in writing about technical topics, and a huge number of business-to-business marketers sell technical products to technical audiences. Is it safe - even advisable - to use jargon in these situations?
"Have you ever listened to two computer programmers talk to each other? Or two engineers? Or two doctors?" asks copywriter Bob McCarthy. "They all have their own language - or so it seems. Their conversations are peppered with technical terms, abbreviations, codes and acronyms that make sense for the people involved."
These jargon-filled conversations are not for show either, says McCarthy. They are for expediency. They provide useful short-cuts that move the conversations along more quickly and - more efficiently. "In short, it's the way they talk," concludes McCarthy, "and it's the way we need to write if we are writing on their behalf."
When writing about technical products or marketing to a technical audience, it's important to note the difference between technical terms and jargon.
Technical terms are words that precisely describe the technology, process, or idea we want to convey. "Operating system" is a technical term, as is "broadband network." We should use them. They are familiar to our readers. And to avoid them would require substituting lengthy and unnecessary descriptions. Technical terms were invented to concisely and clearly communicate technical information to audiences with varying degrees of education and experience.
Jargon, on the other hand, is language that is unnecessarily complex - more so than the idea it is meant to convey. The advantage of using jargon is that with some audiences (e.g., IT professionals), it creates an affinity with the reader.
The disadvantage of jargon is that, aside from sounding pompous, it is not as clear or direct as simpler substitutes. And therefore, your reader may wonder what you really mean.
Years ago, in a brochure describing a material handling system, I wrote that the equipment dumped the material from a storage silo into a bin. The product manager crossed out "dumped" and changed it to "gravimetrically conveyed." When his boss read this, he asked, puzzled, "What's a gravimetric conveyor?"
A health care ad agency showed their client, a manufacturer of dental products, a Web page for a new splint. The splint is a metal band attached to the back of the teeth; the strong, healthy teeth in the mouth help keep the loose ones from moving. The agency had written that the splint "keeps loose teeth in place." The client changed this to say that the splint "stabilizes - mobile dentition." Self-important jargon? Or appropriate use of a legitimate technical term? You tell me.
What about acronyms, an insidious subcategory of jargon particularly rampant in certain industries, such as telecommunications? The rule is to write out the term in the first use, with its acronym following in parentheses; e.g., short messaging service (SMS), electronic data interchange (EDI).
However, this rule is typically not applied when using acronyms that have become so commonplace, the initials communicate your idea more quickly and clearly than the term spelled out. Examples include DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), EST (eastern standard time), scuba (self-contained underwater breathing apparatus), laser (light amplification through stimulated emission of radiation), cop (constable on patrol), and tip (to insure promptness).
You can minimize confusion when using acronyms by being consistent in your usage. Don't randomly jumps from USA to US to U.S.A. to US of A; pick one and stick with it throughout your document.
Even when using legitimate technical terms and acronyms, don't overdo it. A sentence packed with too many acronyms and technical terms seems cold, inhuman, and almost unreadable. The optimal ratio is no more than one technical term for every ten words in the sentence.
Spell checkers valiantly attempt to keep up with ever-changing industry jargon, and fail miserably. Therefore, when writing b-to-b copy, keep a dictionary covering your industry close at hand. For telecommunications, the standard is Newton's Telecom Dictionary; for medical copywriting, it's Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary.
B-to-b marketers worry about the level of technical language in their copy as follows: "If the copy is too technical, some readers won't be able to understand it; but if the copy is too simple, some readers will feel we are talking down to them, and we will insult them."
This may be accurate, but here's another rule of thumb to guide you: if you have to make a choice between making your copy too simple or too sophisticated, err on the side of making it too simple. Reason: in my nearly 30 years of writing business-to-business copy aimed at engineers, scientists, programmers, and other techies, I have never once head a prospect complain, "This brochure is too easy to read."
About the author:
Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter and the author of more than 70 books including The White Paper Marketing Handbook (Racom). You can find him on the Web at www.bly.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com, or phone 201-385-1220.