The Press, July 2012

You know you are in trouble when a politician of all people starts criticising you for talking rubbish.

That was the case in the UK recently when meaningless bureaucratic jargon came under the spotlight of self-confessed ‘grammar fascist’, and Minister of State, Alan Duncan.

While attacking public servants for the use of impenetrable language is a bit like blaming a fish for swimming in water, this approach is also becoming more common in the world of business.

Mr Duncan’s office issued a memo saying the Minister preferred “we did not ‘leverage’ or ‘mainstream’ anything. Nor is he impressed with the loose and meaningless use of ‘going forward’, either at the beginning or the end of any sentence. Thus we do not ever ‘access’, ‘catalyse’, ‘showcase’ or ‘impact’ anything.”

It’s funny to laugh at the ‘Yes Minster’ style antics of government departments, but it is counter-productive, but not uncommon, to do the same with marketing your product.

Technology companies, possibly because they are often selling complicated products, are amongst the worst offenders. Take the relatively mundane world of payroll software.

According to my quick scan of a random sample of companies selling this kind of product in New Zealand, we had:

  • “As an innovator and market leader, company A is. . .”
  • “Company B is New Zealand's leading payroll software provider . . .”
  • “Company C is leading the industry to new frontiers with the most innovative and user-friendly solutions.”
  • Company D offers “the sophistication and security of market-leading payroll management software . . . “
  • Company E is “Australasia’s leading payroll process and outsourcing specialist.”
  • Company F is “committed to establishing industry leading payroll operations . . .”

Maybe it is just part of New Zealand’s egalitarian tradition, but can they all be ‘leaders’?

The reason we are all so keen to be ‘leading’ is that we want to differentiate, or at least appear better than our nearest competition. Ironically the way these companies approach it, they end up sounding very much the same.

“Leading” is not a benefit, it is a description of what you perceive yourself to be. What instead if you were the payroll that was so easy it took the least amount of people to administer, or helped you communicate better with your employees about their pay and conditions so they are more happy and productive, or could it be the fastest so you can get the pays done and have more time for fishing?

That oversimplifies what are often sophisticated products, but the principle remains correct – what customers want to understand is what is it in for them, not that you have a vague and unproven notion that you are a leader.

The “leading” approach is that classic tactic of the real estate agent or used car salesman who tries exaggeration and excessive optimism to try and sell their wares. We shout “leading, leading, leading” in a desperate attempt to impress on people we are special.

Another common folly is the tendency to, much loved of bureaucrats and tech companies, to use jargon to try and impress customers. If you’re leveraging enough enterprise cloud solution sets, you must be doing something cool, right?

For those less courageous, they simply try and use exactly the same words as their competition. Which is why you can read those advertisements for jobs in the paper and they all sound interchangeable, it is hard to tell what the job is, but it is all about being strategic as part of a visionary team delivering excellence customer experiences.

It is easy to underestimate the intelligence of your customers, and think they will be impressed by jargon and extensive adjectives. What customers actually get excited about is something that will be of benefit to them.

My 11 year old son cares little about the 500 MHZ ATI chip that powers the graphics in his Xbox 360, but he loves the fact that the players in his NBA 2k12 game appear so lifelike and move so smoothly.

A real marketing secret is that you don’t need weasel words to sell successfully, and in fact they often work against your ability to stand out in incredibly crowded and noisy markets.

So can you sound intelligent while communicating your company’s message simply? Great marketing comes from sticking to what matters to the customer. Talk to people about their problems and make a connection with those, explaining clearly how you help solve them.

Credit customers with some smarts, and be brave enough to speak simply and with a bit of character. Don’t just be a ‘leader’ like everyone else.

For UK civil servants this approach might save them red faces at the hands of their Minister, for businesses it could mean a real difference to your ability to build a brand and generate demand for your products.

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