Are you using language customers don’t understand?

Bursting with pride, the nursing home’s management team bought a half-page newspaper ad proclaiming “Deficiency-Free State Survey” in giant letters. And I’m willing to wager their message was completely lost upon the people they hoped to impress.

I knew why they were proud, but that’s only because I’ve done work with the senior care industry. State inspectors regularly inspect facilities and try to identify deficiencies in care, cleanliness, recordkeeping, and other areas. When they don’t find any, it’s a cause for celebration and definitely worth promoting.

But here’s the problem: the phrase “deficiency-free state survey” is meaningless to the people the facility advertised to: future residents and their loved ones (as well as families of current residents). I’d confidently wager better than 98 percent of them have no idea what “state survey” or “deficiencies” signify in this context. The facility chose words that meant plenty to nursing home administrators and absolutely nothing to those they serve.

It’s a mistake I see all too often. Companies design beautiful websites and print nice brochures using their industry’s jargon instead of language that’s actually meaningful to their intended audiences. Professions and companies develop their own inside language and shorthand, oblivious to the fact the outside world has no idea what they’re saying.

Many of the best examples come from healthcare. A favorite is the hospital that opened an “ambulatory clinic” as a lower-cost alternative to its emergency room. They chose that name because “ambulatory” is the medical term for someone capable of walking in on their own. But the clinic failed to generate the expected business, and research determined the average person assumed “ambulatory” meant it was for people transported in ambulances.

If your Covid-19 test or colonoscopy comes back as “positive,” is it a good thing? No, a “negative” test is a positive development. The last time you had a procedure, the friendly voice on the phone reminded you to be “NPO after seven.” Wouldn’t it have been just as easy and more meaningful if they instead said, “no food or liquid after 7:00 p.m.”?

These communication gaps are also common within companies and organizations. Departments and functions often have their own ways of speaking and writing that baffle folks down the hall. Ever watched a colleague struggle with assistance from the “help” desk? The technology-savvy experts at the desk often use very different words and phrases than the technology-challenged workers they’re supporting. Frustrations on both sides and frequent misunderstandings get in the way of what should be simple solutions.

Ironically, this self-inflicted failure to communicate is particularly common in the field most focused on sharing knowledge, namely education. I’m convinced the vast majority of conflicts between teachers, administrators, and parents are the direct result of differences in language. When the teacher tells you your child “scored in the 74th percentile on a norm-referenced assessment,” you don’t know whether to spring for ice cream or lock them in the room. If the teacher instead said, “Johnny scored higher than 74 percent of students his age nationwide,” you wouldn’t be confused. I’m also sure most parents who hear that an essay is being graded against a “rubric” wonder what a sandwich made with corned beef has to do with learning English.

The lesson in all this is remarkably simple. If you want to communicate effectively with customers, prospects, or any other audience, you need to communicate in their language, not yours. You can’t expect your audience to grasp your jargon, and it isn’t their responsibility to become educated enough to understand you. Speaking in language that’s familiar to them is the best way to ensure that they’ll understand what you want to convey and avoid the kinds of misunderstandings that create problems and derail relationships.

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