What exactly is slang? In a literal sense, slang is simply a word or phrase that requires specialized knowledge for the reader to understand. For our purposes — including helping people at tech companies write clearly about their offerings — that definition isn’t practical. Most of us only think of the word “slang” in a negative sense. It is something that we should avoid in our writing at all costs.
But that’s not entirely accurate. After all, good writing and technical writing are not antonyms. If the audience on your website has specialized knowledge, there’s nothing wrong with using industry language to communicate your offering.
So where do we draw the line between jargon and necessary language?
I believe we are really trying to solve how to write about a technical product in a way that stays with the reader. We want our copy to be memorable and clear, without being sedated. So in this article I’ll lay out my own more practical definition of jargon and five tactics for finding the right replacement words and phrases.
The definition of a copywriter’s jargon
When it comes to writing for a business, I find it helpful to define jargon as any business word or phrase that lacks a visual component to stay in the reader’s head. Non-visual words are almost forgotten as soon as they are read because there is nothing visual, emotional or otherwise tacky about them.
Consider a phrase like “business solution.” When used in a sentence (“ABC Corp. delivers best-in-class business solutions”), you lose the reader. There is nothing about the sentence that makes it stick in the reader’s mind. Asking a reader to visualize a “business solution” is like asking to grab fog.
Fortunately, there are several easy shortcuts you can use to find clearer, simpler, and “stickier” words.
Write a memorable, jargon-free text?
Tactic #1: Swap vague for visual
Much jargon results from speaking in generalities rather than specifics. The down-street car wash is not marketed as ‘a water-based vehicle transformation solution’. The operation is called a car wash. It is the clearest, simplest and most visual term for what is offered.
Once you’ve written a sentence about your product or company, take the visualization test. Look at each word in the sentence and determine if your words have a visual counterpart. Once you do this, words like “synergy,” “solution,” or “tactical” are the first to hit the chopping block.
Tactic #2: 1 point per sentence
Try not to impress with long sentences full of commas. If you have to make multiple points, keep them all for their own sake. It’s easiest to remember the details of something we’ve read when the finer details are broken down into individual sentences.
Think about it: Long sentences are often filled with unnecessary detail, and they drag the reader on, and on, and on until they skim through your words, read your text faster, or skip to the next section to take the long-windy mess before it exhausts them.
Slow down instead. Keep sentences short. Simple is more memorable.
Tactic #3: Write in an email, not a document
Even for experienced writers, a blank document with a blinking cursor can be very intimidating. Word and Google Docs make many of us write like smug professors, thinking only of lofty words instead of short, sharp words.
Just change your context. Start writing about your product in the body of an email or in a physical notepad. It might even help you start with an introduction like “Dear Mom” to help you take things less seriously. This exercise gets you out of your own head. It puts you at ease, allowing you to write in a more conversational tone.
Tactic #4: Read reviews of your product
You know who hardly ever uses jargon when talking or writing about your products? customers.
If you’re looking for inspiration for simple words and phrases to use in your text, read some online reviews. Better yet, call one of your best clients.
This is the first place I go when I start a new copywriting project for a website. Customers have the best language to talk about your product because they have never been influenced by all the technical specifications, years of meticulous product development and marketing language you have.
Reading the client’s language will save you time and nine times out of ten will produce a better copy than anything you would write yourself.
Tactic #5: Answer ‘What’s in it for me?’
One of the most common causes of jargon is simply writing about details that don’t interest your customers. This comes down to what many marketers call the difference between features and benefits. Features are specifications. Benefits are how your features positively impact the customer.
This is the famous iPod slogan, ‘1,000 songs in your pocket’, in action. While other music players talked about gigabytes and storage, Apple gave chase. They mentioned what was important to their customers: being able to listen to all their favorite songs wherever they go.
So the next time you write a sentence or paragraph about your product, imagine that your best customer could read that line. Would they get excited about what you just wrote? Or would they grimace and ask, “What’s in it for me?”