Public relations

Write the way you talk: 4 easy ways to keep jargon out of marketing materials

Marketing mail from hospitals doesn’t usually make me queasy. A Michigan health system’s recent event invitation, however, could leave readers dizzy and disoriented.

Buzzwords, jargon and mega-words tumble over themselves in juiced-up sentences on steroids. It’s clear no professional communicator reviewed the announcement of a Senior Emergency Department opening this month at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland in Pontiac. It tries to describe benefits from “our patient-centered Senior ED”:

  • “Cultural transformation to enhance knowledge and skills and eliminate stereotypes.”
  • “Organizational transformation to sustain the innovation.”
  • “Physical transformation to optimize the sensory experience.”

Ouch. Talk about needing emergency care – call a code on those phrases, stat!

While no words are misspelled and event details are clear in other portions, I wonder how many times the mailer was reviewed and approved by people who never talk like that except at work. If that’s language you use, hear and read professionally, it may seem OK . .  normal . . . natural.

That easily spoofed mailer reflects a “biz-speak” impairment not treated at the hospital involved, though painless precautions let writers and editors in any industry avoid the condition.

Copywriting preparation always should begin with two questions:

  1. What’s the objective?
  2. Who’s the audience?

Support the mission

In this case, if the objective were to show mastery of academic-style grad school language and the audience were fellow MBAs, MDs and transformation consultants, Mission Accomplished.

But suppose, just for the sake of… well, the real world… that the objective is to promote awareness of a marketing distinction (emergency care tailored to seniors) and that the audience is prospective patients and community leaders. This means corporate dialect is not most fluent language choice.

Corporate communicators can use these four reality checks to engage rather than enrage readers:

  1. “Talk” to a friend or relative, in effect. How would you tell a family member or pal about a new service, product, project, expansion or other announcement? That doesn’t mean using slang, but it does rule out jargon, overheated boasts and most $10 words.
  2. Spot landmines and disarm them. Use active voice (“We developed…”) rather than passive (“The program was developed…”) Short, colloquial words are our friends (priority, not prioritize; transform, not transformation; increase or raise, not optimize; apply, not implement). Use he handy Thesaurus in Microsoft Word.
  3. Listen to yourself, literally. Broadcasters aren’t the only ones who should check the flow, the rhythm, the smoothness of sentences by speaking them aloud before there’s more than one listener – or reader. And just moving your lips or whispering isn’t how you’ll catch clunky constructions that tangle the tongue or make you gasp (not in a good way).
  4. Get a second opinion, ideally not from your team. Reading aloud is just one line of defense. Showing copy to a colleague or anyone unfamiliar with the topic also helps.

Internal backstop

The Pontiac hospital that promises to “sustain the innovation” and “optimize the sensory experience” bypassed another simple cure for those Dilbert-like self-parodies.

Giving an organization’s full communications team an early look is free, fast and smart. That didn’t happen in this case study, confirms Heidi Press, public relations specialist at the facility north of Detroit:

I was not involved in the creation of this invitation, nor have I ever seen it. We do, in fact, have a chief marketing officer whose approval was required for this piece. . . . In addition, because we are now part of a regional initiative, we had to use language that came from the regional headquarters.

Smaller enterprises benefit from a relationship with a marketing communication consultant for message development, copywriting or simply editing reviews. Here, for instance are alternative phrasings that could have been presented in this case.

  • “Cultural transformation to enhance knowledge and skills and eliminate stereotypes.” = Improvements in training and sensitivity.
  • “Organizational transformation to sustain the innovation.” = New systems for a lasting impact.
  • “Physical transformation to optimize the sensory experience.” = An environment tailored to seniors’ comfort.

The point isn’t to nitpick word choices, as others can rewrite the clunkers differently — maybe better. The point is this:

To have real marketing conversations, organizations must speak like real people.

[This is adapted from my Sept. 9, 2010 article at, a site for corporate communicators.]


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