The Startup
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The Startup

Even in Klingon, It’s Still Gobbledygook

One of my all-time, favorite bosses, Michael Carter, would rotate clever quotes underneath his email signature. The quote that stuck with me was, “When people talk to themselves, we call it insanity. When companies talk to themselves, we call it marketing.”

For whom do we create content? Is it our internal audience or is it a person who can approve or influence the purchase of your company’s product? If we look at a lot of business-to-business technology content, it can be difficult to discern the intended audience for the message. We start with noble intentions, but that Highway to Hell can lead to the padded cells of business, where we have in-depth, circular conversations that truly only make sense to, you guessed it, ourselves.

The reality is that the “easiest” way to learn the communication style of an industry is to adopt what appears to be a common vernacular. In many industries, from education and healthcare to technology and government, acronyms and other catch-phrases seem like the easiest way to connect with an audience.

We might assume that everyone has the same Little Orphan Annie decoder ring or Rosetta Stone (if you aren’t familiar with “A Christmas Story.”) These assumptions, like so-called standardized language, are pernicious. We make assumptions in our communication down the line until we risk missing the mark entirely. You know, road to Hell and good intentions. Have you come across the situation in your industry where a simple three-letter acronym has multiple translations or meanings? I have. It’s comical, especially when people inside a company are creating this confusion by releasing it into the cauldron of alphabet soup that’s already boiling over.

Mike Carter and I spent a lot of time discussing marketing and communication strategies, narratives and specific content deliverables. We also talked a lot about music. I enjoyed sharing some of my favorites — from Van Halen’s Diver Down and 1984 to everything from Nine Inch Nails, especially during my phase. As a musician and someone with a lifelong love of music, it’s easy to see how music transcends language barriers. Take Miles Davis as an example. His tone was instantly recognizable and connected with people regardless of race, color, religion, social or economic background or citizenship. Industry jargon is a universal experience. Unlike music, jargon doesn’t help us connect universally.

In my own experience, it’s very easy to get caught up in the excitement of doing a thing, taking action and creating a deliverable. After all, many of us are evaluated on some sort of metric, so an easy metric is the number of widgets produced. Let me relay my own trial and error experience.

I worked at a supply chain communication technology firm (now part of OpenText) at the time. The company was launching a new service for smaller companies that wanted to supply their products to larger retailers but lacked the ability to comply with the technical requirements those retailers set as a condition of doing business with them. The crux of this compliance was the use of electronic data interchange or EDI services to standardize communication around orders, advanced ship notices, invoices, etc.

What’s one of the standard marketing tools we use when launching a new product? You guessed it, a press release. Over a decade ago, we were just beginning to look at press releases as SEO and social content as much as a vehicle for pitching the media. While the audience was different, we approached the same old tool with the same old view of the traditional audience. We wrote a press release that satisfied all the internal folks — checked all the acronym boxes from the product sheets and other materials. The problem was really that the intended audience — small companies — didn’t know these buzzwords or acronyms.

It was about this time that I read David Scott Meerman’s “.” Here is the first line of his manifesto, “Oh jeez, not another flexible, scalable, groundbreaking, industry-standard, cutting-edge product from a market-leading, well-positioned company! Ugh. I think I’m gonna puke!”

It was a eureka moment, similar in the way I experienced the sonic majesty of Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog as a kid. Everything in the world made a bit more sense. Seems obvious now, but we were in a fishbowl of gobbledygook. It was time to administer some tough love to myself and our marketing team. It was time for a gobbledygook intervention.

I called our PR agency of record and asked them for a favor. Get someone at the agency with background as a working journalist and zero knowledge of EDI to read our press release. Not only that, have them mark it up with a red Sharpie and be ruthless in their commentary. A lot of the funniest and most-scathing commentary from the Gobbledygook Manifesto came from beleaguered reporters, so this was the moment of truth from the people suffering on the front-line of marketing fluffery and madness.

The part about all of this I enjoyed the most was the call to review the project requirements with Carlos, who recently joined the agency from the media world. He seemed surprised that I was, effectively, asking him to “rip me a new one” (my words, not his). After many assurances that I was not technically insane, he jumped into the project with gusto.

My favorite comment was on the headline. He asked, “is this guy speaking Klingon?” Yes, Carlos. I may as well have been speaking in Klingon, because a Mom and Pop “supplier” to a large retailer, like a Macy’s, would have thought the same thing. The press release as a tool to connect with the intended audience was utterly useless.

With that attitude adjustment administered, I launched into the new story with a clear description of the business problem and the reason why this company’s solution solved that problem. It was as simple as that. Other than using EDI once as an SEO and SEM keyword, there were not acronyms in the document.

Certain phrases become clichés because they are true, so give in to the statistical reality that we are all complicit in creating them. Gobbledygook is gobbledygook, even in Klingon and even with the best of intentions. My lesson from that experience was to write as if the audience needs a bit of context and not to assume too much.

None of us are perfect, so I still drift back into the Gobbledygook lane every once in a while. Today I have colleagues that are essentially like accountability partners. We do our best to keep our boots and shoes clear of the BS.

For those of you who are not marketers or writers, ask a colleague from a different department to review your materials. Try to ensure that someone doesn’t think and speak exactly like you because those people make the best sounding boards.

My other rule is that while I take pride in delivering quality work, I don’t get caught up in personal ownership or ego over a content deliverable — especially for an internal or external client. My goal is to help that client effectively communicate their messages to the right audience. So bring your sense of humor and leave the ego at the door. Even the greatest writers in the world have editors. Tiger Woods always had a swing coach, and Randy Rhoads took classical guitar lessons while he was recording and touring with Ozzy Osbourne.

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David Fontaine

David Fontaine

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Writer. Musician. Marketer. Grow brands for technologists, developers, engineers and companies with thought leadership content, digital engagement & tech.