J is for…Jargon-free
“From the beginning, Virgin used clear, ordinary language. If I could quickly understand a campaign concept, it was good to go. If something can’t be explained off the back of an envelope, it’s rubbish.”Richard Branson
Step inside some B2B corporate settings and you’ll encounter enough jargon to make even David Brent a tad queasy. If you don’t know the difference between ‘leveraging your synergies’ and ‘having a group thought shower’, your options are to ‘drill down’ or (probably preferably), run for the hills.
So far, so funny.
But when jargon creeps out of the boardroom and into a brand’s messaging, it’s bad news.
Jargon. Could someone please explain?
Jargon is defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as:
Language used by a particular group of people, especially in their work, and which most other people do not understand.
Think builders discussing the installation of RSJs (that’s a Rolled Steel Joist to you and me) or actors on medical dramas “activating the major haemorrhage protocol”. In short, jargon can be a speedy shorthand for professionals in the same field and, in some contexts, is more familiar than other words and phrases.
The point is, jargon has its place. But its use is based on an assumption – that we speak a common language. And unless a B2B brand has total confidence that its audience is as familiar as they are with the jargon they use, they may as well be speaking Martian.
Confusing and alienating, jargon interrupts the relationship a brand should be seeking to build with its audience. And that’s a costly mistake.
Our greatest orators and most gifted writers use language to change the world. And the words they choose stay with us, both in the moment and long after, as we strive to understand ourselves and our environment. Think I have a dream or To be or not to be – single phrases that remain unsurpassed in saying something fundamental about humanity.
Notably, these immortal lines are also incredibly simple. And it’s that simplicity that makes their meaning so clear. Whilst the ideas behind them are profound, the words used to capture them would be easily digested by a kid at primary school. And that’s part of their power. Every speaker of English can understand them, which means we can process and engage with what the writer is striving to communicate.
B2B brands would do well to learn from the Bard. If they want to communicate and maybe, even, capture hearts and minds, clarity is key. And four hundred years after Big Will was putting pen to paper, a study emerged that backed him up.
Marketing’s sticky wicket
In 2012, The Corporate Executive Board Company (CEB) surveyed over 7000 customers to clarify the brand traits that make consumers ‘sticky’, i.e. more likely to follow through on an intended purchase, buy repeatedly and recommend the brand to others.
They found that the best tool for measuring consumer engagement is the “decision simplicity index” – a gauge of how easy customers find it to navigate the information a brand puts out. The easier a brand made a customer’s journey, the higher its score. And the results were astounding.
Top-scoring brands were 86% more likely to be purchased, 9% more likely to be repurchased and 110% more likely to be recommended than brands in the bottom 25%.
Consumers are reaching for brands that make their purchasing decisions easier. And a key part of that help is choosing language that’s accessible.
Fortunately for brands, fifty years ago the US Navy inadvertently developed a tool that helps keep clarity in check.
Talk to me like I’m a US 8th Grader
Originally designed to ensure technical military manuals were easy to understand, the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Formula has become a standard via which the clarity of written English, in general, can be judged. Over time, it established a reading level suitable for a US 8th Grader – i.e. a 13 to 15-year-old student – as ‘Plain English’. In other words, the benchmark level for accessible written communications.
And nowhere is Flesch-Kincaid more relevant than in B2B marketing, right now, in the digital age.
In 2019, a team of researchers published a study concluding that the collective global attention span had narrowed. This, researchers found, was because of the sheer volume of information the average person is exposed to. Professor Sune Lehmann, who worked on the study, said:
It seems that the allocated attention time in our collective minds has a certain size but the cultural items competing for that attention have become more densely packed.
21st-century audiences are bombarded with sales communications. They’re constant and everywhere. When brands add jargon, their F-K score soars, which means their pitch is hard work for the person engaging with it. So the three to four seconds your potential customers give to your content are spent not on receiving your ‘what’ and your ‘why’ but on understanding the words on the page. Your message isn’t received. And that, invariably, means no sale.
Why? Because you’re missing an opportunity to build a human connection with the person reading it.
If you want to be the B2B brand your audience pays attention to, make your message clear. Write to the Flesch-Kincaid Grade 8 standard or lower, just as we have in this paragraph. (Don’t believe us? Check our score, here).
Pepper Money – the lender with the human touch
Pepper – a broad specialist lender for people overlooked by the high street (those with less-than-perfect credit, for example) – are a long-standing client of mm*. What distinguishes them is that they look for opportunities to say ‘yes’, not ‘no’, in support of brokers and their customers.
Demand for specialist mortgages is on the rise due to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis that’s resulted from Brexit, war in Ukraine and the global pandemic. In response to that growing need, Pepper recognised that showing their empathetic side was more important than ever. They wanted to ensure they were speaking in a way that would always engage, communicating not just what their audience needed to hear, but also how they needed to hear it.
Over six months, we developed a bespoke verbal ecosystem on Pepper’s behalf, building on and refining our guidelines for the brand’s communication style. Crucially, its language would always put the broker and their customers front and centre.
Key to this was Flesch-Kincaid. With Grades 6 to 8 as a central pillar, we designed the ecosystem to emphasise accessibility and clarity. And that means – you guessed it – strictly no jargon.
The result is a financial services brand with a verbal identity that reflects its personality. Always inclusive, non-judgemental, and down-to-earth, it’s shaped to flex too, so that it’s direct and to the point when needed. Put simply, Pepper speaks their audience’s language. And it’s very human indeed.
Bevan Money – clarity as standard
Bevan Money is another mm* client who understands the importance of going jargon-free.
Bevan was founded to provide mortgages and savings to the huge numbers of public sector workers who can’t afford an average-priced home across 98% of the UK. And the language we used to describe their goals is direct, accessible and tells a human story:
“The lifesavers, educators, guardians and linchpins who keep this country going have been rightly lauded as heroes.
But doorstep applause doesn’t pay for a deposit. Many public sector workers are unable to buy a home of their own in the communities they work so hard to serve.
It’s not good enough, so we’re going to change it.”
That’s mission. That’s purpose. All expressed in straightforward, easily understandable, jargon-free language – clarity that their audience more than deserves.
Brave new world
The word is authenticity. We talk in greater depth about it as the A of our A-Z of B2B Brand Building.
But it’s worth repeating: if your audience believes your message, if they trust what you’re saying, you will win a degree of buy-in that other brands can only dream of.
Where B2B brands linger, committed to old-fashioned, formal business-speak, they’re being left behind. But where they adjust, becoming altogether more human, they’re opening up to a world of opportunity.
A world that’s resolutely jargon-free.