Saying What You Mean

One of the most important lessons I ever took away from my time in high school came from a Latin teacher that I had.  He said that the importance of words was to convey meaning, but that didn’t excuse you from using them incorrectly with the excuse that people knew what you meant so it doesn’t matter.

A couple of explanations are probably required there…

First of all, yes, I took Latin in high school for a couple of years.  I figured it would be valuable to me later in life and it has been and I was interested in it.  One thing I’ve always done in my education is to learn things I think are interesting – I took a plethora of subjects at University including things like sociology, computer science, mass communication, quantitative and qualitative analysis (statistics), children’s literature and early Christian literature (which was unbelievably fascinating).

Secondly, why would my Latin teacher say that?  Latin is grammatically more complex than English.  Latin uses inflexions on words to convey different meanings and sometimes, you can mix up the order of words and still convey your meaning adequately, but that doesn’t mean you’d be right just because people understood you.  That’s an important distinction and was why he was hard on us getting the word order correct.

The interesting context he used was at this point in the 80’s, management consulting was just starting to take root and management consultants like nothing better than making up words.  These folks started making up a whole new language to define what they were doing to make themselves seem important – largely it was (and is) a form of obfuscation.

In and of itself, that wasn’t really a big deal because that kind of management jargon doesn’t enter the zeitgeist on its own, it’s confined to certain circles.  Kind of like academics who sometimes seem to speak in riddles because they spend so much time only talking to each other.

There was, however, something that changed this – the 24-hour news networks and in particular, CNN.  When the Challenger disaster happened, CNN covered it really well and people started paying attention to Ted Turner’s little “Chicken Noodle Network”.  As their programming grew, they needed to fill their airwaves, so business shows became popular and management consultants started disseminating their jargon to a wider audience.

The word virus had a means of wide-scale distribution.

Now, let’s fast forward to today and we have the most comprehensive content distribution vehicle ever created with the internet.  Take this very post you’re reading – when in human history would some plod in Sydney being able to, on a daily basis, write 1000 word pieces of content from his home office, push “send” and within seconds that message appear instantly in front of several thousand people instantly?  It is an unparalleled capability.

To quote Voltaire or Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben Parker, depending on which you believe, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Which leads me to marketers and our use of language.

Before I go on, language is seriously awesome.  In the sentence above there’s a subtlety that conveys a deeper meaning, but you as a reader might not consciously recognise it.  I used the words, “… our use of language” rather than say “… marketers and their use of language”.  I’m including you and me in this category because we use words in our marketing, so we should be conscious of it.

Anyway, I’ve digressed.

Conveying a message is very important to me in my marketing because I predominantly use a lot of written material.  If I struggle with saying what I mean or getting my ideas across using the written word, I’d be in serious trouble.

The common orthodoxy says that you should write at Grade 5 reading level because that’s the easiest level for people to understand while still being able to succinctly get your message across.

Clearly, I don’t adhere to that.  I treat you like adults and I write at a much higher level, more akin to college or university level.  That’s entirely intentional.  I’m not here to dumb things down for you so the most effective way to communicate my message is to say exactly what I mean.  Sometimes I use “big words” because strangely, they are the most effective at communicating my meaning.

What I desperately try to avoid though is marketing jargon that’s become commonplace in most things you read online.  It’s insidious.

The one that’s a trigger word for me more than anything else is, “uplevel”.  I was reading something this female marketer was trying to say and she wrote, “You need to uplevel your $hit.”  Immediately, you know she’s full of crap because that sentence doesn’t mean anything – it sounds good and I’m sure her audience were all nodding their heads frantically, but there’s no such thing as “uplevelling”.

Now for those of you playing along at home, you might be sitting there saying, “I understand what she means”.  BZZZZZ!  WRONG!  Go back to the top of this post and read my high school Latin teacher said, “Just because I understand it, doesn’t make it right.”

People with poor writing skills and who are lazy say things like, “Spelling doesn’t matter” or “If people know what I’m trying to say, it’s ok to use texting words”.

Those people are stupid and you should not listen to them.  When you write or speak to people in order to convey a message or sell something to them, you need to be unambiguous.  Using jargon, dropping vowels from words or turning nouns into verbs adds a subtle layer of ambiguity to your content and your message.

My rule is pretty simple, if you don’t understand the meaning of a word I’m using, that’s on you, but if I use a word that doesn’t mean anything and I confuse you, that’s on me.

Words are powerful, use them wisely.

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