Quit Using “Stupid Language”
Pop quiz—would you rather use lots of junk words and jargon that don’t mean anything, or speak like a real person and be a great communicator? Even “The Bob and Tom Show” hosts have had enough of “stupid language.”
Yep, “stupid language” is the term that came up this week when Kristi Lee was reading news headlines on “The Bob and Tom Show” as I was driving to Mid-Iowa Cooperative to work on their newsletter.
Here’s a snippet from the Jan. 8, 2018, Circuit City press release that triggered a lively debate:
“Circuit City is set to announce official company relaunch at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday January 8th at 3:00 PM PST during a special press event. Circuit City is expected to announce its official launch concentrated on the retail verticals of e-commerce, mobile, technology, omni-channel commerce.”
That’s what Kristi, Bob, Tom and other hosts were asking. What exactly are retail verticals and omni-channel commerce?
Some of the radio hosts argued that the audience would be familiar with these terms. Others weren’t so sure and asked a key question: why not just clearly say what you mean?
It didn’t get any better as the press release droned on about “enhancing the product discovery journey” and “relaunching with a new agenda of enhancing shopping experiences with cutting-edge technology.”
All this just made Circuit City the butt of endless jokes (including the flippant remark “what a douchebag,” referring to company leadership) on “The Bob and Tom Show,” a nationally-syndicated radio show with millions of listeners. We all got the message when one host put it bluntly. “Quit using stupid language.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Communicating to clarify or confuse—take your pick
Whether you call it stupid language or jargon, it abounds nearly everywhere you go, from business to politics to agriculture. Sometimes it’s not all bad. Jargon (including acronyms) can enhance communication by eliminating unnecessary words—but this only works when everyone knows this insider language.
If I start talking about N, P, and K rates or VRT, other farmers will know immediately I’m referring to nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium fertilizer and variable-rate technology. This wouldn’t be obvious to non-farmers, though.
You venture into the realm of “stupid language” when your audience doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say, and you make no effort to spell it out. It’s easy to see why audiences view jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak as signs that you don’t have a clear grasp of what you want to say—or a clear grasp of your subject.
But this is just the start of the unsettling reality.
As a trained journalist who has interviewed thousands of people in the past 20 years, I’ve learned there’s an even more troubling reason why some people use complex, confusing language. They think that if they dress things up in clever, convoluted concepts, they can deflect the tough questions that cut to the core of tough challenges that rarely have quick or straightforward answers.
It’s the old smoke-and-mirrors trick, and it’s deadly to communicating like a leader.
3 tips to avoid the “stupid language” trap
So how to do choose words that influence and inspire, rather than confuse? Here are my three top tips:
1. Always keep your audience top of mind. Effective communication is not about sounding smart—it’s about sharing a useful message that resonates with your audience. Listen to your audience. What do they want (or need) to know? What would improve their life, solve a problem, help them reach their goals? Since the Circuit City press release was apparently geared towards the media, there are actually two audiences here—reporters and their readers, listeners or viewers. Reporters want an interesting, newsworthy story. Their audience wants tech news that’s presented clearly and shows them how technology (and the companies that supply it) can make their life easier and more enjoyable. Since the big story here is the relaunch of a brand that many people thought was dead, I’d focus on how the comeback of Circuit City will benefit the company’s self-proclaimed target audience of “legacy Circuit City customers to Millennials.”
2. Use simple language. Why use a $1 word when a 10-cent word will do? This isn’t dumbing down the language. This is effective communication. In the case of the Circuit City press release, don’t assume that everyone hearing this message is an electronics expert or techie. Skip the jargon and tech-speak. Instead of “omni-channel commerce,” which isn’t a common term to many people, try, “We sell online and offline and wants to serve people wherever it’s convenient for them, whether that’s in a physical store, an online store or on social media.”
3. Tell a story to support your key point. “Just the facts, ma’am” may have worked for Detective Joe Friday in the classic “Dragnet” TV series, but the facts alone are rarely enough to captivate an audience. Think about it. When you go to party, you don’t walk up to a group of people and say, “I’m pleased to report that I optimized my marketing plan this week to monetize my business.” You tell people a story about what happened. They become intrigued and ask questions. They might even tell others, if the story is compelling enough. With this kind of an exchange, you’ve just accomplished one of communication’s toughest objectives–creating a story that passes the “So what? Who cares?” test.
The bottom line? Be conscious of the language you use when you communicate, whether it’s an e-mail, an article, a speech or a media interview. Putting these three proven tips to work will help you avoid the pitfall of “stupid language”—and that’s no joke.
P.S. Thanks for joining me. I’m glad you’re here.
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