As copywriters, we are taught from Day One that good copywriting needs to be simple, clear and concise.
“Explain everything,” we are told. “Assume our audience knows nothing.”
We see ourselves as the “great translators” – able to take complicated stuff and make it readable and comprehensible to the masses.
We are intolerant of technical talk, bureaucratic babble and industry speak – also known as jargon. And we scoff at the people who use it.
But are we right? Are there times when this “explain everything” approach isn’t necessary? Or worse, can it actually work against you.
I think so.
I agree that for the most part, when writing to people who are outside your client’s industry or profession, it is best to make your copy simple and easy to understand. You want to avoid any form of jargon that may be unfamiliar to your reader.
But not always. Sometimes a little jargon can go a long way.
Have you ever listened to two computer programmers talk to each other? Or two engineers? Or two doctors?
They all have their own language – or so it seems. Their conversations are peppered with technical terms, abbreviations, codes and acronyms that make sense for the people involved.
These jargon-filled conversations are not for show either – they are for expediency. They provide useful short-cuts that move the conversations along more quickly and more efficiently.
In short, it’s the way they talk … and it’s the way we need to write if we are writing on their behalf.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting you take their language verbatim. A good copywriter understands the structure and tone of the letter, what needs to be emphasized and how to move the reader along to a call to action. We are still looking for short, simple, declarative sentences that get to the point quickly.
But a little jargon can’t hurt.
In fact, a little jargon may be necessary if only to show the reader you are one of them. Without it, you risk sounding simplistic or naive – which will hurt your credibility.
Let me give you a few examples:
Here is a paragraph from a letter written to investment professionals:
“Now you can provide performance measurement, asset allocation, comparative statistics and risk analysis … all the information you and your clients need … with (product)”
Here is a paragraph from a letter written to bank presidents:
“There is no easy way to simultaneously manage capital, liquidity, interest rate risk, funding risk and profitability.”
Here is a bullet point from a letter written to investment professionals:
“* AIMR compliance – you can calculate money-weighted (IRR) and time- weighted returns (using Modified Dietz) in compliance with AIMR international standards;”
Here is a sentence written to supply chain/inventory management professionals:
“… you will learn how our inventory planning solutions can help you achieve or exceed your fill rates with minimum inventory, increase inventory turns, and improve customer satisfaction and retention while reducing inventory costs.”
Here is a “Johnson Box” headline for a letter to investment professionals:
“Virtual modeling … stock level attribution … multi-currency …
user-defined modeling … an open, stand-alone system …
We invite you to take a closer look at (product)”
Most of the jargon you see in these letters have little meaning to the general public, but they are critical pieces of information or selling points to the audience being targeted.
So how do you strike this balance between simple, easy-to-understand copy and the appropriate use of industry jargon?
First, you need to be willing to collaborate.
Unless you are trained or experienced in an industry, you need to recognize that your clients know a lot more about their industry than you do. They know their products better. They know their audience better. And they know their message better.
Your overall copy strategy shouldn’t change much but you need that voice – that “from one colleague to another” voice … and your client is best able to help you with that.
Second, you need to know what is important.
In any direct mail campaign, I know that the offer will impact response more than the copy so I always insist on packaging and presenting the offer – my way.
I also want my way with the headline, the first two paragraphs, the call to action and the PS. I am more flexible with the guts of the letter although even with the jargon, I still try to maintain a basic structure of the letter.
If the letter has bullet points (and most of mine do), I will often lead each bullet point with jargon followed by some benefit or explanatory phrase.
Third, involve the sales people.
The sales people know the customers better than anyone else. Ask if a certain word or phrase is familiar to the target audience – not most of the audience, but all of the audience.
Ask if you can read some of their own one-to-one correspondence (mail and email) to their customers so you can get a feel for how they communicate.
Once you present a draft, ask if anyone would want to rewrite a paragraph or two just to see how they would approach the letter. You may want to use some of those changes in your next draft.
Fourth, run it by some customers.
This isn’t the easiest thing to do, but it can help a lot. Ask the customers if the letter makes sense to them, if there are certain words or phases that need explaining, and if you have focused on the most important selling points.
It’s not a perfect process but it helps.
Above all else, be willing to compromise.
No matter how well you write, there is always going to be a client, a boss or a colleague who will want to give you a second opinion. No one ever wants to write the first word, but everyone is a critic, an editor.
That’s okay. We need to have thick skins as writers and we need to be willing to work with other people’s ideas – especially if they are paying our bills.
Finding the right balance between effective copywriting and industry speak is no easy task. If given the choice between the two, I would always err to side of clear and simple copywriting.
But I would also suggest that perhaps we should think twice about the philosophy that says “explain everything” and replace it with “explain everything that needs explaining.”
Bob McCarthy is a direct response copywriter and consultant specializing in business-to-business sales and marketing. He is president of McCarthy & King Marketing in Milford, MA.
A 27-year veteran of direct marketing, he is past president of the New England Direct Marketing Association (NEDMA) and, for 10 years, taught direct response copywriting at the Bentley College (Waltham, MA) Direct Marketing Program.
You can visit his website at www.mccarthyandking.com and subscribe to his FREE e-newsletter, “The Direct Response Coach.” You can also download a FREE copy of his new report, “47 Good Ideas to Improve Your Lead Generation and Customer Acquisition Program.” Bob can be reached at 508-473-8643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.