Say what you mean—don’t let jargon drive your visitors away.

Cartoon: enabling readers to leverage  flavor synergies transparently, thus maximizing culinary potentialities.

Are you impressed by business jargon? Will you go out of your way to hire a firm whose message is conveyed in marketing doublespeak? Do you consider it a fun challenge to dissect Web copy to decipher its hidden meaning? I didn't think so.

As Internet users, we've all come across sites filled with corporate buzzwords and convoluted sentences that make us roll our eyes. But what of our own sites? Is your site clear and easy to read? Or have you tried so hard to make it meaningful that it actually ends up meaning less?

If you bewilder your readers you'll increase your bounce rate

When a visitor first lands on your site, whether they arrive at the home page or an interior page, they'll quickly skim the page to see if it has the potential to solve their problem.

They've searched out your site, or followed a link for a reason. They want to know if they should buy A or B, learn how to maximize their SEO, bake the best chocolate torte, hire your design firm, etc. If your site clearly indicates that it will provide the answers they seek, they'll stay.

If the copy is confusing, and readers can't easily skim the page, they will assume the answers aren't there. Then they'll return to their search results to find a site that makes more sense.

If your site really does provide the information they seek, then make that obvious. Don't risk making them leave before they can discover the valuable resources you offer.

Obfuscation in action: off-putting jargon merely causes confusion

Last week I stumbled upon two Web sites with confusing copy that may help to illustrate this point. The sites are for Web design firms with offices in the United Kingdom. Here are 2 paragraphs from their home pages.

Company A: We take pride in every piece of work we do, and guarantee a visually stunning design to platform your company.

Company B: X a web design company is here for a purpose to make art and design of your imagination alive and real on the web platform. After several months of hunting of the best talent and struggling for the name of their design company they finally reached a vertical which engages their vision of togetherness.

Imagining myself as a potential customer, I knew I would leave—instead of exploring the sites—for two main reasons.

  1. They don't convey much in the way of actual information. These paragraphs make vague reference to design without conveying the unique features and benefits of their services. I expect firms to take pride in their work, so Company A doesn't really need to say that on the front page. Instead it might have been helpful to make a specific point about their firm that differentiates them from the competition.
  2. The sentences don't make a lot of sense. What does it mean "to platform your company" or "finally reached a vertical?" Jargon also typically sets off a warning bell in my head. It makes me wonder why they are trying so hard. Are they resorting to smoke and mirrors so I won't notice some flaw in their services? They may be wonderful designers, but the word play makes me cautious. If they can't take the time to say what they mean—in a way that I'll understand—then what else won't they do?

The first example seems innocuous at first. But the phrase "platform your company" made me pause. The use of platform as a verb is unusual (perhaps it's an idiom in use outside the U.S.?) and makes me think that they don't actually take pride in their editing. They may do stellar work, but this sentence gave me a different impression. Granted we're all human and easily capable of making editorial errors (I'm sure you'll find some on my site too) but when you only have a few seconds to make a good impression, it often helps to have an editor review the copy.

This sentence was also somewhat vague. I'm guessing they mean to say that they'll produce a stunning design that visually supports your company's brand. If you sell bespoke suits they'll design a tasteful site in navy and charcoal rather than a whimsical site filled with pink fluffy bunnies. If that's the case, why not just say so? "We custom tailor our designs to suit your specific brand and image."

Such a sentence may not sound exciting, but it's descriptive and specific. It shows they will keep your current brand in mind when working on your project and not run off on some creative tangent that doesn't really serve your needs.

In the second example I'm totally lost. Perhaps they have a very creative creative team. But again, what will they do for you? Is your goal to make your imagination alive on the Web? Or do you want to recruit students to your MBA program and would be pleased if the Web site could also look cool in the process?

In trying to sound clever and compelling, these sites risk turning away prospective clients who don't have the time to figure out what was really meant.

Keep your copy simple and direct

Headscape, a well known British Web design firm, knows how to keep it simple. Their slogan is "creating attractive, usable websites." Through four simple words found in the top banner they've made it clear that they:

  • build Web sites
  • pay attention to visual aesthetics, and
  • focus on usability to provide a good visitor experience

Within seconds a visitor is able to figure out what Headscape does. The simplicity continues in the "About section" in which they write,

"The sites we build are accessible to the widest audience, easily updated, and designed to meet your business objectives. We provide design, application development and consultancy. "

This paragraph clearly lets visitors know if Headscape has the potential to serve their needs. If the answer is no, then visitors will leave after having made an informed decision. If the answer is yes, visitors will continue to explore the site, review their portfolio samples, and fill out the contact form.

If you're writing for the Web—or anywhere—wording matters.

We can convey similar messages in many different ways, but if we really want to connect with our audience, it helps to be as clear and precise as possible. With mere seconds available to capture a readers attention we need to keep it simple. "See Spot Run" may be boring, but if your readers will grasp that more quickly than "Envision Spot energizing his quadrupedal potential" then the 1st choice is the obvious choice.

Jargon allows us to camouflage intellectual poverty
with verbal extravagance.
— David Pratt

More on copywriting and word choice.
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  1. Heidi, I tell you sometimes it is fun to get into "jargon" talks with people. There is NOTHING more embarrasing when they try to drop some smart words and end up sounding foolish. Like these examples that you mentioned. Not only do you NOT know the jargon but they lose extra credibility for sounding ignorant by saying it wrong. I'm very much a stickler for if you are going to say something make sure that you know what you are talking about. Kyle James’s last blog post..College Ads on the Boston Subway

    Comment by Kyle James — May 12, 2009 @9:12 pm

  2. Have you read David Meerman Scott's Gobbledegook Manifesto? You can download it from his site: . . . I think you'd enjoy it. :) Stacy Lukas’s last blog post..Finding comfort in transparency

    Comment by Stacy Lukas — May 14, 2009 @11:16 am

  3. Hi Heidi, Thanks for the useful info! There's lots of jargon in sailing and I'm now wondering if I use too much. I'm going to have to review yet again to see how things look. Your posts are always helpful, thanks again.

    Comment by Debbie — May 14, 2009 @1:27 pm

  4. Kyle,
    Agreed, sometimes @nickdawson and I have jargon wars on Twitter in which we spew nonsense at one another using corpspeak. But it can be dangerous when wielded seriously. I was at a meeting where some fellow was going on about a new venture and how he was going to leverage this and that to create social media synergies and so forth. Everyone's eyes glazed over. But the worst part (for him) was that afterwards people spent more time talking about his vocabulary than they did his idea. He ended up losing out on what could have been a good networking opportunity.

    Thanks for the tip, I've heard of David Meerman Scott but I've not read that yet, but will add it to my list. I should also subscribe to his blog. It looks interesting.

    There is a lot of specialized vocabulary in sailing, but when used in context it serves a purpose. If you're racing it is far more efficient to ask someone to tighten the boomvang than to tighten the angly line between the vertical pole and the horizontal one.

    I used sailing as an example of situations that require a specialized vocabulary in Beware of Your Vocabulary. I think the trick is just to know when such vocabulary is appropriate and when it's not. If we all know we're speaking the same language, such as a crew that regularly races together, then it's fine speak of halyards (lines used to raise sails), stays (cables used to hold up and put tension on mast) and rail meat (crew whose primary function is to add weight on the windward side to keep the boat from tipping too much). But if I'm blogging about sailing to a general audience I'll want to use a more general vocabulary (or define the words as I go) and offer more description.

    Comment by Heidi — May 14, 2009 @2:23 pm

  5. Heidi, What prompted you to choose UK websites as examples of gibberish? Do you notice more gibberish in UK websites than in US ones? Not exactly on topic, but some UK politicians have lost the ability to speak English that makes sense. It may be a defense against later being criticized or held to account for what they say, but watching some of them speak I get the impression they are hanging on to their sentences like umbrellas in a gale. David’s last blog post..The Blog Has Moved

    Comment by David — May 26, 2009 @8:17 am

  6. David,
    As far as I can tell sites from the U.K. don't produce any more or less gibberish than those in the U.S. (And our American politicians are equally adept at not making sense.)

    The examples were triggered by a British design firm (whose name I won't mention) that has recently been embarking on a rather aggressive Twitter marketing campaign. The firm has followed me from several (could be almost a dozen now) different Twitter accounts each of which is promoting an e-book and includes a link to some part of their site. I clicked through to see who was sending me so much spam and discovered that the copy on their site was not particularly compelling. (From a copy standpoint this was the more harmless of the two examples I used.)

    I mentioned that they both had offices in the U.K. mostly to show that they were produced in a country where English is the primary language—so that readers could see the problems weren't caused by bad translations from another language.

    Then, since my bad examples were from the U.K., I decided the good example should be as well and thus I chose Headscape for that. I was familiar with that site because it's the firm run by the folks who produce Boagworld—one of my favorite podcasts.

    The lesson of this? Don't spam bloggers on Twitter; you could inspire them in the wrong sort of way!

    Comment by Heidi — May 26, 2009 @9:23 am

  7. Twitter Comment... Say what you mean—don’t let jargon drive your visitors away | Web Development Blog - [link to post] - Posted using Chat Catcher ...

    Trackback by JDEbberly (J D Ebberly) — June 8, 2009 @2:59 am

  8. Web development or print, jargon should be avoided at all costs. People repond to active voice, vibrant verbs and conversational copy.

    Comment by greg bowen — June 29, 2009 @8:13 pm

  9. [...] tell all of your friends about your great experience. And you've visited sites that sent you away—muttering in frustration as you wondered what rabid badger was hired to write such drivel. In either [...]

    Pingback by » Have you ever tried to eat ice cream with a fork? Copywriting for the Web | Web Development Blog: Heidi Adams Cool — July 22, 2009 @5:33 pm

  10. Thank you for sharing this post. I sometimes think that companies forget who they are dealing with - the public. Lets face it, a lot of the public will not be familiar with business jargon, or what ever kind of jargon you are thinking of using on your site. Keeping it simple and clear will surely bring you a lot more customers - they will actually know what you are trying to sell them! I also think that using too much jargon just makes you look a bit pretentious. It is like you are trying to hide behind your fancy words, and if so what do you have to hide! Anyways, thanks for sharing this post. It was very interesting, and as you can see it got me thinking!

    Comment by Lorna — June 8, 2011 @1:57 pm

  11. Very good points you make! Number one rule in writing: INFORM, not impress. Cheers!

    Comment by Dara — June 13, 2011 @5:32 am

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