Baffling people into buying works – but drop the jargon, say it like it is

Marc Nohr
Follow Marc
When you hear yourself about to use a piece of jargon, see if you can say what you mean in simpler language. (Source: Getty)

According to a recent study conducted by Britain Thinks, women are wary of investing their cash in financial products, because they are turned off by the jargon the industry employs in its ads.

Not just women, I’ll wager. Last year the Financial Conduct Authority warned banks against their persistent use of jargon. “All too often customer communications are so technical that even the most astute consumer would struggle to understand the information.”

A cursory glance at a few ads for financial service companies reveals a mode of communication that seems designed specifically to impede understanding. The ads tell us the APR or the AER but they don’t tell us what either means.

A cynic might wonder whether such difficulties are intentional. After all, if you can reduce people’s ability to understand what it is you’re selling, you may not have to work so hard to offer something more valuable to them than your competitor. Baffling people into buying can be a grimly effective strategy.

Marketers sometimes use jargon because often they just haven’t done the hard work of engaging their imaginations and thinking about the difference between what they want to say, and what the consumer is ready to hear.

They aren’t the only ones to use the technical terms of their trade as a crutch. Politicians deploy jargon too, at least the less skilful ones do. Ed Miliband’s enthusiasm for “pre-distribution” was thankfully short-lived. Even “austerity”, which many politicians use, is meaningless to most voters.

When people accuse politicians of using soundbites, they rarely mean it as a compliment. But the best soundbites capture lightning in a bottle, simplifying complexity without sacrificing truth. Recall Bill Clinton, on welfare: “People want a hand up, not a handout.” This is distillation, not mystification. Complex language requires us to think, which usually means – unless we really care about the subject at hand – that we don’t think at all, and ignore the message altogether. Arguably the Trump election machine used this insight to devastating effect in the recent Presidential race.

Soundbites lodge themselves deep in people’s memories: the slogan used by Nike is so memorable that I don’t even have to tell you what it is. They give people something to repeat to themselves and others when discussing a decision. O.J. Simpson’s lawyer, Johnnie Cochrane, understood this only too well: “If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.”

So here’s a suggestion. Tomorrow, whatever your industry, try and speak more like Nike and less like a bank. When you hear yourself about to use a piece of jargon, see if you can say what you mean in simpler language. Don’t think for too long. Just do it.

Marc Nohr, CEO of advertising agency Fold7 @MarcNohr

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

Related articles