Choose your words carefully

Choosing the right words may at times feel like nothing more than a game of competitive semantics. Or a painful match of splitting hairs.

But the difference between two words that on the surface appear similar can be quite dividing at their core. (Think suitable vs. relevant, for example.) This is why knowing the types of words your customers use is critical.

Unfamiliar words create barriers. But familiar words break them down.

Uh, what?

I recently read this on a real estate brokerage’s About Us page:

XYZ Real Estate’s* secret sauce is optimizing our execution and building relationships.

(*Note: I withheld the brokerage’s identity so as not to pick on them.)

Kudos to the brokerage for taking the time to at least try to define what makes them different. Unfortunately, the fail here is in the word choice. The phrase optimizing our execution creates more questions than it answers. I can’t imagine even a group of brainy engineers using that phrase to describe what essentially means doing the best we can.

As a potential customer, I was immediately turned off by what felt like an attempt to talk over my head. I was also suspicious of what, exactly, they were trying to say.

So, what’s the better way? They could just say:

We’re efficient and good at what we do.

While this new word choice as a value statement still lacks strength and substantiation, most people will at least immediately understand what it means.

Blank stares

This happens at my house all the time: I’ll get a blank stare from my four-year-old after I’ve asked her to do something because I’ve used a word that didn’t compute in her young mind. Even though she may know the rest of the words or even by my tone what I want her to do, it’s that one unfamiliar word that throws a wrench in the wheel of her brain.

Sometimes I do this on purpose to test her language development. Mostly, though, it’s just a moment of tiredness in which I didn’t translate internally in time.

Either way, these moments are great reminders of why effective communication demands a common ground of words. I can either ask my daughter to vacate her room and get prepared for school or I can ask her to get dressed and come eat her cereal.

Only one of these options will result in her making it to school on time.

Good stuff

One of the masters of modern copywriting of course is MailChimp. This phrase on their features page struck me as the perfect example of the power of familiar words:

Create the right email for the right people

While many of MailChimp’s users may in fact be professional email marketers, many are also small business people. Who mans the email at a small business? Probably the owner or someone lower who’s been trained by the owner.

The copy shows that MailChimp knows this and has made a concerted effort to talk their customers’ language. They could’ve easily used the word target or the words optimize or segment. But those would be unfamiliar or only vaguely familiar to many of their customers.

Lipstick on a pig

So the next time you’re trying to “sex up” your copy by adding fancy words or phrases, think about the power of familiar words. Do you want your copy to create walls or remove them?

You can apply lipstick to that pig, but underneath it’s still not going to speak a human language.

At the end of the day, if your customer doesn’t hear what you’re saying, they’re going to shrug their shoulders and move on.