Ontological. Hermeneutics. Liminal. Epistemiology. Synecdochic. Dialectics.
Reading that list of words probably made you feel one of two ways, depending on whether or not you work in academia. To the academic, those words might’ve felt natural – like speaking in a familiar dialect.
The non-academic, though, probably felt lost. Perhaps a bit shut out of the conversation, or that it’s not really meant for them.
That difference sums up the problem with academic jargon.
By definition, jargon’s exclusive
It creates a clear divide between those who get it, and those who don’t. When you’re writing to experienced academics in your field, that’s not as much of a problem. But what about when you’re trying to reach a wider audience – like policymakers, journalists or the general public? Or readers whose first language isn’t English?
Two thirds of academics want to see more knowledge being shared between academia and practice, to make academia more inclusive. To break down that barrier between academia and the wider world, we’ve got to use our language to draw people in – not shut them out. And exclusivity isn’t the only problem…
Jargon can make even the most interesting topics pretty dull
An Ohio State University study found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics .
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to put readers off.)
Insider language is only part of the picture
It’s not just jargon that’s working against us in our bid to make academia more accessible. Overly complex language and long, winding sentences make for writing that’s dense and difficult to read.
A recent study of the readability of scientific journals found that 22% of papers published in 2015 had a readability score of less than 0 . That means not even university graduates could be expected to understand them. (For context, the readability of the BBC typically sits at around 60.)
When we’re writing to a wider audience, our language needs to shed light on things – not make them murkier. Here are some tips to help.
1. Find your own Doris and Bertie
When US investor Warren Buffett writes his annual reports, he imagines writing to his sisters, Doris and Bertie – they’re smart, but they’re not experts in finance.
To get out of your academic bubble, think of your favourite non-academic (like a friend, family member or partner), and write to them.
2. Cure acronymitis
Plenty of acronyms make your writing look like hard work, so use as few as possible.
Say you’re writing about the BPS, the British Psychological Society. The first time you use it, explain it. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the society…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
3. Watch out for zombie nouns
Academics love turning verbs into nouns: the utilisation of, the implementation of. Higher education professor Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns: they suck the energy out of your writing, and make it hard to see what’s happening. Use more verbs instead.
4. Swap the passive voice for the active
What’s easier to understand: a trend was observed or we observed a trend? The first is in the passive voice – we don’t know who’s doing the action. The passive voice makes your readability worse, so stick to the active.
5. Shorten your sentences
When your average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, readers take in 90% of your content on a first read. When your sentences stretch up to 43 words, that understanding drops to 10%. Add in a few more full stops to keep it readable.
Bonus tip: track your readability score in Microsoft Word. Find out how to switch it on.
We wrote this blog for academic publisher Emerald Publishing. They turned our tips into a nice infographic, which you can find here.
‘We should probably comment on this. Hmm, what can we say?’
Brands needing to react to the news is nothing new. But between a global pandemic and the growth of the #Black Lives Matter movement, 2020 has made topical messaging pretty much a full-time job for marketing departments. And they’ve got big expectations to live up to as these days, we want the brands we buy from to show they care about social issues.
But topical messages can be a minefield. In this blog series, we’ll look at three ways to make sure you’re positively contributing to the conversation – and not just jumping on the bandwagon. And that starts with getting your story straight.
Your ad-hoc posts need something solid to back them up
It’s not enough to send out an email telling customers you’re committed to their safety at this difficult time, or post a BlackoutTuesday black square on Instagram. Consumers are all-too-wary of the cookie cutter ‘social issue response’ from brands, as this post perfectly sums up:
To avoid looking like you’re paying lip service, your words need to be backed up by actions. In the case of Black Lives Matter, for example, are you championing Black voices in your content? Donating to organisations that fight racism? Changing your hiring practices to find more diverse talent?
And all of that needs to be backed up by a solid brand story – your purpose, values, vision and taglines. The core pieces of storytelling that will back up the more reactive messaging.
Now’s the time to reassess your messaging
A recent survey of UK Twitter users found that 93% of us don’t want brands to go back to their pre-Covid messaging. So if there was ever a good time to re-jig how you talk about your business, it’s now.
Gather together the core pieces of your brand story – usually found on your website About Us and your brand positioning documents - and take a long, hard look at them. Do they hold up in 2020? Or, like KFC’s Finger Lickin’ Good, do they suddenly feel out of step?
Sort your brand messaging into what you can keep, what you need to update, and what needs to go. And don’t forget to involve all your teams. Make it a diverse group and ask them what they think your brand stands for, what it means to them. Because that’s where you’ll find a truly authentic story.
Of course, once you’ve figured out what your story is, you need to work on how you say it. More on that in part 2 of this series…
This blog is part of series on communicating topical messages, without sounding like you’re just jumping on the bandwagon. You can read part two here.
Herd immunity, incubation periods, zoonotic. Over the past few months, the general public’s vocabulary has exploded with medical terminology and niche scientific jargon.
‘Ah, the R rate,’ we nod intelligently. ‘Of course, the distinction between the R number and the growth rate is crucial.’ A few BBC articles down, and we’re all expert epidemiologists.
… Except of course, we’re not.
It’s good that we’re all learning more about something that’s changing our daily lives. But coming into contact with so much technical terminology can cause a fair few problems for us as readers. There’s a lesson here for the scientific and medical industries in general: what’s the right way to talk about complex topics?
Two problems with jargon
1. By definition, it’s exclusive
Jargon is defined as ‘special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand’. The part about ‘a profession or group’ is important: jargon is insider language. It signals to people who aren’t in the know that they’re on the outside.
In the wrong hands, that insider feeling can be used to deliberately obscure meaning – throw around enough complex words, and your listener might give up trying to understand, and just assume you know what you’re talking about.
2. It makes us switch off
An Ohio State University study from February this year found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics.
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to disengage readers.)
So let’s assume you don’t want to deliberately pull the wool over your reader’s eyes, or bore them to tears. How can you use language to draw people in, not push them out?
Think like your reader
When you’re an expert surrounded by other experts, it’s difficult to un-know all the sector-specific knowledge in your head. Test your writing out on a family member or friend – do they get it? If not, you need to find a simpler way in.
The fix might be as simple as defining a scientific term when you first use it – even if that feels dumbed down to a pro. But sometimes it might mean rethinking how you frame the information, and whether all the new vocabulary is helping or hindering your reader.
Acronyms send a signal to our brain that what we’re about to read looks like hard work. So avoid them when you can.
Let’s say you’re writing about ACE2, the protein in our cells that coronavirus attaches to (told you I was an expert epidemiologist). The first time you use it, explain what it is. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the protein…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
Use language we can see, hear or touch
What’s clearer: ‘Maintain social distancing’ or ‘Keep a car length away’?
Concrete language that we can see, hear or touch is much easier for our brains to process than abstract concepts. Try using more verbs (doing words) than nouns in your writing, and using language you can physically imagine. In the public health realm, people will be more likely to do what you’re asking of them if they can picture it.
We’ll never be able to do away with technical terms – nor should we try to. They’re important for accuracy, and as a shorthand when we’re talking to others who are in the know. But when you’re trying to communicate niche ideas to the public, they work against you. So keep the jargon behind closed doors. Now, excuse me while I google R rate again.
Religion and politics. Not just the two things you don’t talk about at the dinner table, but also two things that most brands have steered clear of in the past. Or, if they did go there, they’d stick to gentle jibes or statements so general they couldn’t offend anyone.
Not at the moment, though. In the run up to today’s UK general election, plenty of brands have run ads that feel close to the bone – and that, in some cases, have got them into a bit of trouble. Maybe it’s the fact that, for the first time in over 90 years, a UK election is clashing with Christmas ad budgets. Maybe it’s that the state of UK politics is so uncertain, it feels like it’s fair game for brands to get involved.
Either way, here are our three favourite politically-inclined campaigns from brands in recent weeks – and what we can learn from them.
Westminster Jungle – The Times
The newspaper transformed Westminster station into a vine-covered jungle for a day. Images of elephants, gorillas, lions and sloths adorned the walls – bickering, prowling, lazing metaphors for parliament.
It’s easy to see why this one works – The Times has earned the right to get political. Throughout its history, the paper has been known for detailed political analysis, and its editors typically have close ties to No. 10.
And because their Tube takeover is a general comment on the state of parliament, rather than one aimed at any particular party, it’s hard to disagree with.
Manage anything. Even London - monday.com
Project management software start-up monday.com caused a stir with a series of ads poking fun at the current government – with particular swipes at Brexit negotiations, and Boris Johnson’s failed Garden Bridge.
It’s the specificity of these ads that have made them a hit with London commuters. When it comes to observational comedy, the more specific an observation, the more it rings true – a more general comment like ‘gosh, isn’t the government annoying at times’ would never have got monday.com the traction these ads have.
But it’s a double-edged sword: that same specificity has also got TfL referred to the advertising watchdog for being partisan.
A tech start-up like monday.com doesn’t have to play by the same rules as incumbents, though. They get to occupy a maverick role, pushing limits that would be harder for a big financial services company, say, to get away with. Our final ad is an example of a bigger-name brand playing it safer – but still getting a laugh.
Time for a cabinet reshuffle - Tesco
You can always rely on Tesco for a top-shelf pun.
In this ad, the supermarket subverts the usual meaning of a phrase that was on everyone’s lips in the early days of Johnson’s premiership.
There isn’t much to get away with here. It’s fun wordplay, rather than serious satire, and that’s exactly right for Tesco’s inclusive brand. It feels sufficiently cheeky and punchy, even though there’s no real risk involved in what they’re saying.
So, what can brands learn from these examples?
- Point of view and tone of voice go hand-in-hand. Brands can’t really get away with turning a blind eye to the big issues of the day anymore – we expect more. But what you say and how you say it have to chime with each other – or your message could fall flat.
- You still need to make a point about your offering. These three ads work because they’re not just making political jokes for the sake of it – they’re all firmly tied to what these businesses actually do.
- Make sure your stance suits your positioning as a brand. It’s hard to believe in a big financial services brand playing the rabble-rousing start-up. Know the role your customers expect you to play – and if you do get political, make sure it matches up.
Remember the days of buying cinema tickets over the phone? Wasted minutes bellowing ‘Jumanji… JU-MAN-JI’ into your landline as the disembodied voice on the other end says ‘Sorry, I didn’t get that. Did you say Batman Forever?’
Thankfully, voice assistants have come a long way since then. By the end of 2017, Google’s speech recognition had hit 95% accuracy. Chatbots have come a long way, too – but inevitably, error messages and bottlenecks still happen. And research shows that unhelpful messages can make customers’ stress levels go through the roof.
So how do you stop your users getting fed up, and calling you instead? It’s all in your language. Find the right tone for your bot – and make it a master conversationalist – and you’ll save your customers from banging their heads against their screens.
1. Sound human. (Just not too human.)
The Turing Test might once have been the standard we held robots to, but we don’t want our bots to pretend to be human any more. A Goldsmiths study found that almost half of Brits think it’s ‘creepy’ when a bot pretends to be real. We don’t want to feel duped – we want to know where we stand. In California, it’ll be illegal for a bot to pretend to be human as of July this year.
That doesn’t mean we want to have to interpret robot-speak, though. In a conversation with a bot, we want the same things we want in any conversation: empathy. Warmth. Signs that the other person is listening. One of the most natural ways we show empathy is by mirroring the language of the person we’re speaking to.
So writing more like you speak will serve you well here. Use conversational words, contractions, and the odd discourse marker like ‘ok’ ‘well’ and ‘right’ to help build a warmer relationship with your users. (Of course, there are as many ways to sound ‘human’ as there are, er, actual humans. It all depends on your brand’s personality, and the persona you’re after for your bot.)
2. Set the parameters of your relationship.
One of the biggest reasons your users are getting frustrated with your bot might well be because their expectations don’t match up with what you can deliver. So from your first interaction, be totally clear on what your bot can – and can’t – do.
And pick the right points in the conversation to remind customers what those boundaries are.
Your intro message is the place to start. Nike does a nice job of this in theirs:
‘I can help with an existing order or get you set up with the hottest shoes & gear.’
As does Western Union:
‘Chat with us to send money, track transfers, check exchange rates/ fees, find agent locations, and more.’
Your bot not understanding a question is another good time to direct users to the right tasks – ‘Hmm, I can’t help with that. Here are a few things I can do…’
Set the parameters for the tone of your conversation, too. If you start on a subservient, apologetic note – ‘How may I be of assistance?’ – you’re priming your user to have less respect for your bot. (Plus, if your bot’s female, using language like that could reinforce harmful gender stereotypes.) Go for an adult-to-adult feel instead: ‘I’m here to help. What’s happening?’
3. Balance personality with getting on with the job at hand.
Your users might come to your bot because they have a job that needs doing. But they’re more likely to stick around, come back, and tell other people about it if they have a good time in the process.
In a Forrester study into the traits we want to see in a bot, ‘funny’ came fourth – right after polite, caring and intelligent. We want efficiency and helpfulness, sure – but sometimes, we want jokes and weird gifs, too.
Take the time to craft your bot’s character: what’s their back story? What are their hobbies? What other robots would they be mates with in the playground? Turn that character into a set of guidelines that anyone writing for your bot can follow – like the ones we did at The Writer for Vodafone’s customer service chatbot TOBi.
Don’t let personality get in the way, though. No one wants your assistant to crack a joke at the expense of actually solving their problem. Save those snippets for the Easter eggs – hidden gems to reward you user with if they ask certain questions.
Ultimately, the smarter machines get at things like speech recognition and natural language processing, the less fed up we’ll get as consumers. But all of that technological brilliance is wasted if your bot’s just rubbish at having a conversation. And without things like body language or visual cues to help guide that conversation, it’s your words that need to do all the heavy lifting.
Pay more attention to those words, and your customers will feel more inclined to keep coming back – and less inclined to chuck their Alexa out the window.
‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
No prizes for guessing who said this one, especially as I’ve put his name in the title. Churchill’s words on the Battle of Britain in 1940 are probably some of the most famous in history.
But something you might not know is that Churchill had a good few goes at these words – or a variation, at least – before he really got it right.
Forty years earlier, when speaking at a by-election in Oldham, no less, he said:
‘Never before were there so many people in England, and never before have they had so much to eat.’
Nine years later, he dusted off the old notebook and gave it another crack. This time he was talking about a new irrigation system in Africa:
‘Nowhere else in the world could so enormous a mass of water be held up by so little masonry.’
That’s not even the whole of it– there are loads more examples in here.
For any writer familiar with the feeling of struggling to get the words out, thinking about this example can be pretty freeing.
Effortless to read doesn’t mean effortless to write
Writing that looks naturally brilliant is, more often than not, the product of hours – or decades, in this example – of reworking something bit by bit until it just works.
When we see great words printed on an advert, or hear a great speaker say them, it can feel like they were always that way. That they just appeared fully-formed.
In reality, though, Churchill was able to come up with such a word-perfect line to suit this occasion because he was a great writer, yes, but also because he already had it in his armoury, after years of honing.
Let your first draft be a bit rubbish
We love the idea of the casual genius. But no one writes a perfect first draft.
There’s a myth that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope on the train on the way to give the speech. It’s a nice romantic image, but it’s not true: he spent a couple of weeks on it, probably made lots of revisions, and hated the idea of speaking off the cuff.
So next time you’re sat in front of a blank Word document, waiting for divine inspiration to strike, think about Churchill playing with the same words over forty years. Get a first draft out your system, and fix it later.