In copywriting 101 we learn to avoid jargon, but that doesn’t mean that we apply the knowledge. If you will not listen to your English teacher, maybe you will listen to Google…
Here is proof that jargon can greatly damage your website’s profitability and effectiveness.
What is Jargon?
Jargon is language that “dresses up” a message with a sense of importance, but has vague meaning. Experts use jargon all the time, until it becomes second nature. To you, your own jargon is crystal clear. But listen to someone else’s jargon to understand what your jargon sounds like to others.
The natural response to jargon is “huh?”
The Jargon Police, A.K.A copywriters
I’ll borrow the command of master copywriter, Robert W. Bly:
Don’t use insider jargon when writing to non-specialists.
Even when writing to specialists in my MBA program, I found that avoiding jargon whenever possible helped my essays stand out from my classmates’ jargon-riddled papers, and earned me higher grades.
My professors can understand MBA jargon perfectly well, except that it takes extra effort even for them. Jargon is difficult to understand even to someone who knows it.
Is jargon always bad?
Bly’s article provides some great examples of when to use jargon (if you are a used car salesman or as a kind of secret handshake among industry insiders).
As a rule of thumb, you should use jargon in your copy less often than swear words, i.e. pretty much never.
Here is another well-written article from professional copywriter, Sid Smith: How Too Much Jargon Will Ruin Your Message. Smith points out that your users cannot understand what to you seems so clear, so you should get out of your head, listen to how your ideal clients describe what you do, and borrow your user’s language to describe your solution.
The takeaway? Avoid
Maybe you are thinking, “yeah, yeah, I get it. No jargon, yada yada yada. Now leave me alone, word nerds.”
That is what my client thought too, but no longer.
A one-word change = 100x result
Often a little tweak, something we normally overlook, makes the biggest impact.
After some keyword research for a client, I recommended that they use the phrase “sales tax refund” to describe their services. They opted to use the phrase they always used, sales tax recovery, figuring it was close enough, and more technically proper.
How much difference could it make? Besides, most competitors also call it sales tax recovery. They can’t all be wrong…
Well, maybe they can be.
Here are the number of monthly searches for each of the two terms: 170 for “sales tax recovery” and 5400 for “sales tax refund.” Whoa.
[You can do this kind of research right now for free. Search for keyword tool in Google, it will be the first result, and use your free Google account to log in. Check the box for “phrase match” to replicate these results].
Let’s do the math. The simple term—with a mere one-word change—is searched for 31 times more often than the jargon term.
Also, if you notice, the competition for the more popular term is actually lower. More competitors use the “proper” jargon term too, leaving empty space for competition that uses the term people are actually searching for.
This research suggests that using “sales tax recovery” instead of “sales tax refund” will get roughly 100x the results with the same work.
I asked my client the difference between the terms. Is a sales tax refund actually different than recovery? They said the only difference was that “sales tax recovery” was the proper term. Then I showed them my simple chart.
Although we already sent them a comprehensive keyword report with this data included, sometimes it takes a simple comparison with the simplest possible research to change behavior.
It looks like your English teacher was right. People don’t search for jargon, unless they are experts, in which case they don’t need expert help.
This also illustrates another principle: people don’t care what you do (tax recovery services), they care what is in it for them (tax refunds).
How Jargon Hurts Profits
The refund vs recovery debate concerns one of my client’s high-value, flagship services. A slight edge here means a lot of extra profit in the long-term.
Once a website can convert traffic into revenue, doubling traffic will double revenue. Almost always, doubling revenue more than doubles profit (because your fixed costs remain the same). Jargon not only decreases traffic, but it also decreases conversions, a double whammy.
Okay, so what? Big deal, right? This is just one case and one keyword tweak. Besides, every page will have dozens, even hundreds of keywords.
The point is that applying a few basic copywriting fundamentals to your website’s articles and pages can make a massive difference over time, even if you never do any keyword research at all.
Additionally, “avoid jargon,” is just one of many advanced copywriting techniques that you can employ to everything you write or speak.
Simple Guidelines for Jargon-free Copy
Learning the principle “avoid jargon” will not actually prevent you from using jargon, as this case study shows. That is because you need to develop a process for what to do instead, or you will go back to old habits.
Yes, you should use clear and simple language, but the problem is that what is clear and simple to you is not clear and simple to newbies. How do you get around that?
Three things that get in the way of jargon-free copy:
- A desire to appear intelligent and professional.
- A fear that being different than competitors/peers will make you seem weird in a bad way.
- The extreme difficulty of seeing a problem from a beginner’s perspective as an expert (the curse of knowledge).
Now that you understand the problems, you can begin to apply the solutions. I’ll present some simple antidotes.
- Apply the George W. Bush communication strategy: use simple language, repeat a clear and simple message, and don’t be afraid to stumble over your words occasionally. Simple, common language inexpertly delivered helps people trust you more than they otherwise would. In other words, highly effective language conceals its own skill, just as great makeup makes you look like you aren’t wearing any.
- Listen to your users struggle to explain their problems. Capture their exact words. Use their exact language when describing your solution. Hint: the internet saves verbatim records of the struggle to understand your field on help forums and Q&A sites.
- Apply keyword research to uncover the most common terms people use to describe the core problems that you solve with your business.
- Use concrete analogies when your subject is complex, abstract or vague. Concrete means you can visualize it. See this article on vivid analogies for more depth.
- Test your messages on newbies and watch for confusion. This is the hardest part, but also the biggest opportunity to stand out. You will be surprised how little actually gets across, but most likely your competitors have no idea how little of their message gets across.
It is natural to drag your feet. Jargon busting requires effort and practice. Yet its difficulty is what makes jargon busting such a great way to stand out online.
I totally understand that you are busy. That is why we are working on article-writing templates that walk you through a proven article-writing process. That is why we focus on simple principles that you can apply any time, even while watching TV. And that is why we offer copywriting services.
Okay, so try these simple jargon-busting techniques for at least a week and see if your awareness of jargon and geek-speak is not enhanced. Do you have any additional jargon-busting techniques you find useful? I would love to hear them in the comment section.