Why jargon is shoo-ing away your customers. And how to captivate them instead

(October 9, 2019)

Just say you wrote a book titled, How to Build a Successful E-commerce Business. Say the book provided an easy-to-follow framework that had allowed you to increase online sales by 200%. And just say you wanted to convince a friend to read the book, too. She (the friend) has just started an online store for her Wine brand, but you know she’s struggling to make sales.

How would you convince her?

Would you say:

The book divulges many factors in great detail on foundational principals to optimise your sales strategy, enabling you to monetise your e-commerce business.

No.  We’d hope not, anyway. No one speaks like that, save for some academics. So why do so many businesses try to communicate their value and difference in the market by flouting meaningless jargon?

Writing is an unnatural act.

As Charles Darwin observed, “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak, as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.”

Speech and writing differ in mechanics, of course, which is why you need to practice to reproduce the sounds of language onto paper or an About Page for your website. But there’s a reason that makes writing a life-long craft, even after you’ve mastered the basic mechanics.

Cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker wrote that speaking and writing involve very different kinds of human relationship. And only the one associated with speech comes naturally to us.

He says spoken conversation is instinctive because social interaction is instinctive: you speak to those whom you are on speaking terms. When you engage in conversation with someone, you have an inkling of what she knows and what he might be interested in learning. And as you chat to them you can monitor their eyes, their face, and their posture and instinctively adapt the conversation to their needs.

But you can’t do this while you type on a keyboard and send those words out into the world. You have to get through to your reader or customer without meeting them or seeing their reactions.

The key to effective writing, then, is developing empathy for your imaginary audience.

When you use jargon you’re not being empathetic

And this is where the corporate babblers go wrong and end up sounding more robotic than R2-D2.

For example, here’s a bit of web copy from a Strategy Consultancy:

“We bring visualisation and knowledge design expertise to help people navigate through the plethora of data, information, and tasks that surround them, and help them achieve clarity and focus. We use advanced visual techniques, “heuristics” (mental models), and shared spaces and artefacts to accelerate thinking and create smart, accessible representations of strategy and business changes.”

Wait, what?

If you want to say you’re an expert at clarifying things, then perhaps confusing your potential clients is a self-defeating way of showing that. The only thing the company has demonstrated here, as far as I’m aware, is a knack for oxymorons.

I’m sure the company didn’t mean to be contradicting.

So what was the motive?

Well, I’ve met plenty of business owners and entrepreneurs who seem to think if you sprinkle a few 5-syllable words here and there, you will prove to your potential customers that you are very smart and, therefore, to be trusted.

But as I’ve already pointed out, writing is an act of empathy, not walking around flexing your muscles at Bondi beach.

So while certain business owners believe that flouting their linguistic guns will attract muchos attention and adulation, the opposite is true.

The co-founder of a communication consulting company asked a team of 15 executives what “optimisation” means. Despite the term being overused and arguably well-known by executives, the co-founder received seven different definitions.

The word didn’t inspire intrigue or awe but total confusion.

Founder of Virgin Group Richard Branson agrees.  “It’s far better to use a simple term and commonplace words that everyone will understand, rather than showing off and annoying your audience,” he writes.

While the call to use easy-to-understand language is recent in business and branding, the argument for clear writing began in literary circles almost a century ago when William Faulkner accused Ernest Hemingway of “never being known to use a word that might cause the reader to check a dictionary.”

Hemingway allegedly refuted, saying, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. Remember, anybody who pulls his erudition or education on you hasn’t any.”

So the key takeaway is clear, then. Just because you use big words doesn’t mean you sound smart. To write compellingly, write with clarity. 

Simple, clear words help you tell compelling stories

The sobering thing about taking out big fancy words is that the sentences seem stripped back, almost too plain.

Exhibit A. Let’s look at this sentence again:

We bring visualisation and knowledge design expertise to help people navigate through the plethora of data, information, and tasks that surround them, and help them achieve clarity and focus.

Now, let’s transform it into plain-speak:

We use design to make complex information easy to understand.

Doesn’t sound as impressive, does it?


Now, you may be wondering, how do I use plain, simple language and still give my brand that extra oomph, that extra dollop of cream on what is normally a boring ice cream sundae.

The answer is simple.

Tell a story

In a study, Dr. Zak, a founding pioneer in the emerging field of neuroeconomics, closely monitored the neural activity of hundreds of people who viewed a story about a father and his two-year-old son who was dying.

The story followed an age-old narrative arc and the study showed that patients, in response to the story, produced cortisol (which helps focus our attention on something important) and oxytocin (associated with care and empathy).

Curiously, the amount of cortisol and oxytocin was directly correlated to how much money the patients donated to a charity which helps sick children.

But when the video showed the father and son walking together in a zoo—just walking, without context—there was a decrease in the amount of those two hormones. Nothing was happening in the story, so patients unconsciously switched off.

Tell a story. But not the Once-upon-a-time type.

Okay, so your business is not built on a story like Dr. Zak’s. But you can still communicate the value of your product by using plain language and empathy while still using story-principles.

Remember that book How to Build a Successful E-commerce Business? Well, let’s write that again—this time, though, using a conversational style for a generic audience (something you could put on an email, or website).

You’re starting an online store for your business but you don’t know where to begin. Or maybe you already have an E-commerce Business, but you’re struggling to make sales.

You’re not alone. After all, creating a successful online store is tough. You have to build an audience, sales funnels, automated email sequences, and a website designed to help prospective customers buy your product with ease. And as you’re probably aware, that is just the beginning.

I know. I used to be where you are now, too. I had an online business that made no sales, that made me pull my hair out from frustration. I was just about to quit for the 100th and final time when I finally called for help. I knew a friend of a friend who’d built many successful online businesses and he gave me a simple framework to work with. I began using that framework, plus researching everything I could on e-commerce. I even began researching in my son’s high school while he was at football practice.

After a year of working 60 hours a week and reading over 40 books, I finally had a well-oiled online business. The business has grown exponentially. Now, I’m sipping pina Coladas in the Bahamas. And now I’ve shared everything I know in this book that costs $20, so you too can sip pina Coladas in the Bahamas.

Etc. etc.

You get the idea.

And even if you don’t have a business where you think copy like that would fit, then think beyond just words. How are you telling a story in every aspect of your brand?

Everything from the colours, typeface, the way you deliver a service or product. And then from a writing perspective, you can show your expert ability to make complex information easy to understand through design (yeah, Strategy consultancy, I’m looking at you) through blog posts, email sequences and case studies that tell a compelling story. You can even write captions on social media of an example of a beautifully designed graph.

You can do anything really. Make some creative magic.

Just do it with empathy.

Brew Copy, a storytelling studio that helps you build your brand—with words. Contact me at jayden@brewcopy.com. Stay in touch on Instagram. Or on Linkedin.