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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