Make Techno-jargon Taboo in Your Marketing Communications


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If you have played the word game, Taboo, you already know where I’m going with this discussion.

For those who aren’t familiar, a quick tutorial: in Taboo, players take turns describing a word or phrase to their partner—or partners—without using five common additional words or phrases presented on a randomly drawn card that contains all of the words. At the same time, the opposing players monitor a timer, and sound a buzzer (supplied with the game) if one of the five taboo words or phrases is inadvertently used. The team that conveys the most words without using taboo words wins.


For example, to describe the word SOAP, the card shows the taboo words CLEAN, WASH, SUDS, LAUNDRY, and OPERA. If the word to describe combines two words, like BASKETBALL, then BASKET and BALL are also banned. Oh, you can’t gesture, either. Try it—the challenge is harder than it appears. And beer and wine don’t make the game easier. I’ve tried.

A business version of this game would be salvation for all of us. Imagine a card with DATA WAREHOUSE as the phrase to describe, and you can’t say FILE, INFORMATION, SERVER, ITIL, and TERABYTE.

Why do I say this? Because a software company I work with recently sent me a key piece of their marketing collateral and asked me to advise them about how to make it more effective. I expected typical minor stuff. “Change happy to glad,” as we say in the trade. But my head quickly began to hurt from the abundant techno-jargon. I stowed my surgical editing knife, reached for my heavy axe, and began chopping:

system, systems, data, databases, updates, interfaces

Gone! “But we use those words every day,” you say. Me too, so I understand. But to give this context, they intended this material for CFO’s and operations executives, not techies.

Before returning my revisions, I solicited the opinion of a friend of mine, a seasoned CFO, by asking him to have a look at the company’s website. He wrote this reply:

“As a CFO, I would be very hesitant to buy this solution if my team (or more likely the IT team) brought it to me for approval. I really don’t like to buy solutions when I can’t get a common-sense handle on what the solution is and how it works.”

Granted, it’s just one person’s opinion, but if your mission is selling something, you won’t find a red flag any redder than that. I printed his email in large text, framed it, and placed it on my office wall. If you’re in marketing communications, I recommend you do the same. If you’re short on wall space, just print and frame his second sentence.

Anytime we communicate, we risk falling into a jargon trap. But what, exactly, is jargon? A new book by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges defines jargon as “words and phrases used . . . in place of plain-English words and phrases that express the same thought. Jargon adds nothing but a phony air of expertise.” Their advice? “Avoid words that would cause people to look at you funny if you used them at a party. Pretend that you’re telling your story to some friends in your living room; that’s how you should tell it to the court.” Of course, we would say customer in place of court. Whatever. Same thing.

In addition to the words I mentioned earlier, what other common tech jargon are strong candidates for taboo in customer communications?

cloud, cloud computing, cloud-based, Web2.0, Web3.0, SocialWeb, Crowdsourcing, SaaS, on-demand, real-time, synch, gamification, virtual, virtualization, malware, platform, next-generation, paradigm shift, seamless, ideation, infrastructure, IT architecture

Every day people coin new jargon, and marketers are only too eager to blast it to world through Twitter, blogs, and other marcomm—I mean Marketing Communications. To be completely fair, pressure for companies to be found through online search has pushed much of this jargon into places it doesn’t belong. “We were the first company to use gamification on our website!” Great. I got 4.7 million search results for the word just now—not bad, considering its first use goes all the way back to 2002. You might know what gamification means, but do your prospective customers? Theirs is the only opinion that matters.

If you don’t want your target buyer telling you through silent indifference, “I won’t buy your solution because I can’t get a common-sense handle on what it is and how it works,” start managing that risk by making heinous jargon transgressions taboo at your company. Here are some steps:

1. Retrieve a random piece of your company’s current marketing communication.
2. Select a word you think is jargon. For example, interface.
3. Without the aid of online search, ask members of your team to define that word.
4. Any word lacking consensus on meaning should be considered for removal.
5. Compile your own internal list of taboo words, and assign staff to serve as jargon police to make sure the words don’t slip into any customer document, presentation, or face-to-face customer meeting.
6. Maintain the list, and distribute it to people who need to know.
7. Ask yourself, “how do our prospects perceive [alleged jargon word or phrase]? Are they familiar with [word or phrase]? Does using this word improve our most important ideas and messages—or obfuscate them?
8. If anyone at your company uses a taboo word when it should be avoided, don’t sound a buzzer. That would become too noisy. Instead, for every infraction, ask the violator to pony up $1.00 into the happy hour jar. You’ll squelch the use of jargon faster than anyone can imagine, and you’ll have great fun every Friday afternoon when you head out for drinks.

So, if you want a seamless way to integrate these breakthrough, game-changing ideas into a scalable framework embedded with your legacy process workflows, and if you want to incentivize your staff and other stakeholders to utilize the output to align your resources for disruptive innovation, we should connect, synch calendars, and collaborate.

Phew! That’s a lot, and I’ve still barely optimized the input from my cloud-based jargon repository.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. I was ready to object the moment I read this title, but after reading the post I realize you hit on my most common bit of marketing advice, which is to speak in the language of the audience, not what’s most comfortable for you. Techies need to realize that most customers are business people and are interested in how the solution will help them, in ways they can understand. Good take on a common challenge, Andy.


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