Thursday, October 28, 2010

How to Avoid Gobbledygook

The first iteration of Google production serve...Image via Wikipedia
If there is one thing that I despise more than cold soup, it is gobbledygook. (note: I can't believe that spellcheck picked that one up!)

Wikipedia defines gobbledygook as any text containing jargon or especially convoluted English that results in it being excessively hard to understand or even incomprehensible.

I like to call it "vapour text" because appears to look like something when in fact, it's nothing.  There are many reasons for gobbledygook, chief among them is that people, companies and industries love to speak in a language that they only they understand.  They use their own language as means of creating a group that they feel apart of and one that keeps other people out.

I see it everywhere.  Most often in marketing materials, website copy, datasheets, whitepapers.  You also hear it in speeches, conversations, lectures and webinars.  Sometimes they write or speak in a short of short-hand using acronyms that they think everyone understands, other times they speak in such long-winded sentences, you'd think they were going to pass out if they didn't stop for a breath.

My personal belief is that no one ever understands this stuff.  Even the people you think might understand it, don't.  I have often theorized to myself while reading this crap or hearing somebody speak "I bet if I stopped this and asked 10 people what X, Y, Z really mean, they wouldn't be able to tell me".

Whenever I have this conversation with people, there will always be somebody who says "but you have to be professional," or somebody else that says "that's how we do it politics," (some of the worst offenders) or "you have to match your audience,".   My answer for all of these tends to be "unless you're writing for the Journal of XYZ, your audience is going to be real people".

I believe that the need to speak in goobledygook is a complete myth.  I believe that the age of the internet and more specifically, search engines has really helped us change this.  Today, we can use web analytics and keyword research tools to see what people are really responding to instead of simply guessing.  We now have the ability to prove the people who continue to use goobledygook wrong.

With that in mind, here are a few tips for how you can bust the goobledygookers:

1) Use Google Trends to see what terms are more popular in Google searches.   Search data is awesome because it shows intent.  It shows what might be at the top of somebody's mind because I believe that people bring up Google and just type something in.  Next time some wanker is pushing you to use some ridiculous term in your copy, graph what you want to use versus what they want to use in Trends.

2) Ask.  I like to play dumb and ask somebody what something means.  If they stutter or have to think about it, I will suggest something simpler.

3) Run an A/B test.  Use a tool like Google Optimizer or something similar to set up an A/B test of simple copy versus complex copy.  Let the results speak for themselves.

4) Use "free writing" to develop copy.  If you find yourself struggling to get copy down then you're probably spending too much time trying to use terms that aren't natural.  One way to break out of this is to use "free writing" which a technique I have used for years without even knowing what it is.  In fact, it wasn't really until I heard this episode of Mitch Joel's podcast that I figured out what I was doing.

There is a trend, happening right now, towards the re-humanization of interaction.  After years of marketers speaking to themselves, the tide if beginning to turn.  We're beginning to interact like people again.  People who speak a normal language and not some long, drawn-out form of prose that only a true academic could love.

Try it and let me know how it works out for you.

UPDATE: The day after I published this post, I was pointed to this post by Suzanne Lowe about the lack of understanding by clients of firms that sell professional services.  Provides an additional viewpoint on what I am talking about here.  Also provides a handy glossary of terms.

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Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day 2010: Water

Thanks to Tom Megginson, Creative Director at Ottawa's Acart Communications for pointing me to the fact that today is blog action day 2010.  The purpose is to unite bloggers worldwide for one day on a topic.  I believe this year is the third year of the initiative and this year it is about water.

It is understandable that Canadians don't really think about drinking water that often.  Estimates are that Canada has between 5% and 20% of the world's supply of clean drinking water at our disposal.  We are surrounded by it and we enjoy spending our time swimming in it instead of thinking about it.

The problem is that most of the world isn't as fortunate as us.  Many don't have the luxury to consume or even waste water like we do.  The CBC reported:

Canadians consume 350 litres of water a day per capita, second only to the Americans as the most profligate wasters of water in the world. The average global citizen needs only between 20 and 40 litres of water a day for drinking and sanitation.

Perhaps if Canadians understood the magnitude of the clean drinking water program globally, we'd start to change our habits in some small ways that could make a huge difference.  Here are some startling facts about the clean drinking water issue from charity:water :
  • Over a billion people, or one in eight, don't have access to clean drinking water.
  • In Africa alone, people spend nearly 40 billion hours every year walking for water that is often barely safe to drink.
  • Unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of diseases and kill more people every year than acts of violence, including war.
What can you do to help?

The Ottawa-based non-profit One Change has some great tips for saving water on their site.

Having recently read Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead and been to a Furthur show just this past summer, I'd like to take this opportunity to point to The Unbroken Chain Foundation's Box of Rain project that supports charity : water.

You can view their auction which includes items such as tickets to the Furthur New Year's celebration in San Francisco.

You can also sign's petition.|Start Petition