How jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms affect your marketing and life at large

4 months ago

Let’s start with what I hope is not a pretentious quote. Mark Twain said, “Use plain, simple language, short words, and brief sentences.” That’s it – a brilliant but simple guiding principle for any kind of writing or verbal communication. 

Too often, when businesses or entrepreneurs attempt to relay what their service or product is, they get tangled up. When that happens, remember Twain’s words. 

A good rule of thumb is to always use a simpler word when you have a choice. 

This applies not only to masterpieces of imaginative fiction but compelling truth when you are sharing what you can do for your customer base. 

This is my introduction to the subject matter I want to talk about today. That is the jargon, acronyms, and overall language used in particular groups. It exists everywhere from the boardroom to the playground. 

Why do we use jargon and buzzwords?

“We use jargon when we’re feeling insecure – it helps us feel like we have higher status,” says Professor Adam Galinsky, who teaches leadership and ethics at Columbia University.

Zachariah Brown, coauthor of a study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes states: “Low status increases jargon use.” It’s akin to someone wearing high-end items of clothing or brands to show their emergence into a higher social class.

People often use jargon to sound smart, fit in or seem like they have more experience than they do. Engaging in wordplay like this can have the opposite effect than the user desires. They sound false or not at the top tier of their industry if they misuse the language. 

Newbies in any field can fall prey to this. In marketing, it can backfire spectacularly if you try to use language your target audience doesn’t understand. The result of content that does this? Zilch. Zero. Crickets. In addition to not gaining you any business, you could make your prospect feel frustrated, stupid, and sometimes even angry. And yes, I realize “target audience” and “prospect” are also words unique to marketers.

I had a discovery call recently with an executive who wanted to round out their marketing team. I realized pretty quickly it would not be a good fit for me. Why? Because he used acronyms, marketing buzzwords, and the turn of a phrase in almost every sentence. It did not feel like a human conversation – I felt like I was in a webinar. 

At one point an acronym came up that I did not immediately recognize. I found myself frozen, so intent on deciphering it that I missed the next question. I realized later the term was misused, which is why it was non-sensical to me in the first place. What made this even more ironic is that the topic was about marketing strategy – which is my jam, and even I couldn’t keep up. The lesson? You shouldn’t need a cheat sheet of industry terms to talk to people about their business.

It’s less of a faux pas to use specialized language when you are talking to others in your industry, but if you are trying to reach an audience – it’s the kiss of death not to use their language. Take time to figure it out. If you are cramming acronyms and jargon into your website and other content, it will backfire – unless you are communicating with a B2B target audience that knows what you speak.

The colorful Mark Cuban isn’t a fan of jargon, and has a knee-jerk reaction to the word ‘cohort’. In a Q&A video for WIRED, Cuban said: “There’s no reason to ever use the word ‘cohort’ when you could use the word ‘group.’ A cohort is a group of people. Just say ‘group’- you sound stupid when you use the word ‘cohort’ because you’re trying to sound smart.”

Still, some folks just can’t resist the urge to pepper their speech with long, important-sounding words and current corporate cliches. The word authentic was designated last year as Merriam-Webster’s official Word of the Year, beating out runners up deepfake and dystopian

While Cuban may be triggered when he hears the word ‘cohort,’ I find these equally as irksome:

  • Circle back
  • Put a pin in it
  • Put it in the parking lot
  • Reach out
  • Boots on the ground
  • New normal
  • Unprecedented
  • Give 110%
  • We’re all in alignment
  • Get granular
  • Unpack something

In digital marketing circles, you will hear these acronyms and buzzwords (feel free to use this as a cheat sheet if you wish): 

  • CPC: Cost-Per-Click
  • CRM – Customer relationship management
  • CTA: Call-to-Action
  • CTR: Clickthrough Rate
  • KPI: Key Performance Indicator(s)
  • PPC: Pay-Per-Click
  • SEO – Search engine optimization
  • ROI – Return on investment
  • SEM: Search Engine Marketing
  • Funnel or pipeline – These oft-used terms are actually outdated. It’s now more complex than a customer coming across your brand and being theoretically pushed through a funnel until they buy your product.
  • Keywords – These are words people use when looking for something on search engines. They are critical for marketing strategy. But can we at least agree to use it a little less?
  • Optimize – Optimizing is a process – not a step – and is easier said than done. It’s rarely as simple as making a few tweaks to attract hundreds of new customers – which is often the expectation of this overused word.
  • Pivot – We need to pivot from this word and find another way to convey that we are transitioning.

This specific language is not inappropriate or unnecessary, however, it can be overused. And, when working with clients, it should always be explained.

Miscommunication with corporate language can get worse when used in text messaging / instant messaging, and emails

Some jargon can come across as passive-aggressive in these settings due to the absence of nonverbal cues. The tone of the communication must be inferred by the receiver.

Psychology Today says our brains tend to naturally skew toward the negative. As such, messages may come across as argumentative or condescending, which is rarely the sender’s intent. Always have a few beta readers to check your messaging before sending a mass missive!

The generation gap

Boomers strive to get their ducks in a row, and sometimes want to run things up a flagpole. They despise having to herd cats, and avoid reinventing the wheel

Younger employees have no idea what this means. Their buzzwords and jargon are newer and shorter. Vibe was the leading catchphrase for Gen Z in 2023, followed closely by lit, bet, lay, basically, sus, bro, and cancel.

You see the problem. Jargon and buzzwords can make navigating the workplace more difficult when there are different age groups and areas of expertise, and imagine how stressful and confusing this language would be for professionals for whom English is a second language. 

To understand how to communicate best with the community you want to reach, it always comes back to audience research.

In a nutshell (I could not resist)

Jargon and buzzwords have been around for years and are deeply entrenched in our culture. It’s pretty entertaining to trace the origins of certain words and phrases, many of which go back to centuries-old industries and professions. They can be useful to ‘cut to the chase’ or quickly convey a thought to your industry or peer group. But, you must consider what it is you want to convey, and the audience you want to convey it to. 

Using plain, straightforward language is going to win every time over multisyllabic, doublespeak – there’s simply less room for confusion and mistakes. I’ll leave you with words from a band of yesteryear – The Fixx, “Why don’t they do what they say, say what they mean? One thing leads to another…” 

If you need help demystifying marketing content for your target audience amidst jargon, acronyms, buzzwords, catchphrases, or even AI, Wordswerk is here. We get you.