Are you talking to yourself?

Some time back, a local church asserted that a school in my community was providing “outcome-based education” – a bugaboo for many – and was said to be organizing a public protest.

School officials quickly scheduled a parent meeting, and during the discussion, an official said something like, “They think we have OBE because we use cross-pollinated peer facilitative instruction.” In my characteristically reserved fashion, I spouted, “Now just what the heck does that mean?”

He bristled. “It means students help one another learn.”

My reply? “Then why the Sam Hill don’t you just say that?” Never missing an opportunity to do some educating of my own, I explained that jargon only confuses people, and when people don’t understand it, they create their own meanings – rarely positive ones.

What does this have to do with business? Too many companies waste time and ad space talking to themselves. They may not intend to leave us out of the conversation, but they do a pretty good job of it.

“It doesn’t hurt if it’s interesting or entertaining, too.”

Point A to Point B. The objective of marketing communications is usually to convey information from a company to an audience of some sort. Could be a prospect, a customer, an employee – maybe even Wall Street.

To make that connection, the information must be relevant and understandable. It doesn’t hurt if it’s interesting or entertaining, too. Sound like common sense? I agree. So why do so many companies fall short? I believe the biggest problem is that many decision-makers are more worried about their peers’ and bosses’ opinions then they are about communicating with the real audiences.

Inner visions. One of the most common forms of self-talk starts with vision-minded CEOs. The CEO ends his annual exhortation to employees by announcing that the company will hereafter practice Discrete Quality Pinpointing. He likes the term; after all, he created it himself (with his trusty thesaurus).

He tells the inner circle of big cheeses that under DQP, every aspect of the company’s processes will be analyzed to ensure quality. The cheeses embrace the concept and spread it among the troops with the fervor of apostles.

Two weeks later, a product manager tells the ad agency’s account team that the new brochure should emphasize that the company is DQP-driven. Never mind that the account team has never heard of the term. Never mind that customers and prospects won’t get it, either. The product manager insists that everyone she knows is talking about it.

Mass hysteria. A similar form appears with the publication of each new management book. You can tell which executives digested Tom Peters’s latest from the language in their annual reports. That’s no slam against Peters or Drucker or Covey – but far too many of those who ape their words miss the meaning behind them.

Like a mouse traveling through a snake’s digestive tract, the words find their way from board meetings to memos to brochures and ads. Little wonder three out of four brochures include the phrase “we have a commitment to excellence and a dedication to quality.”

Overuse turns those words into empty platitudes. Would you believe a used-car dealer who pleaded “Trust me?” Why should a prospect take you at your word? I know that your company has integrity, practices quality, and is made up of darned nice people, but simply packaging that in a trendy phrase isn’t going to convince anyone.

What’s important? Many “customer” newsletters are hotbeds of self-talk. Instead of sharing information customers will find useful, they shovel out the company line.

I remember an assignment to reinvent a doomed newsletter for companies providing towing services to a motor club’s members. Calling names from the mailing list was enlightening. “I don’t read that rag. It’s nothing but PR for your company and junk about which executive is getting promoted.” What would you rather read? “Look, I’m trying to make a buck. Tell me how I can do a better job of running my business.”

We did that, by focusing on successful ways their peers addressed personnel, equipment, and other issues. Instead of putting the motor club at the center, we put the readers there. And because we stopped talking to ourselves, that newsletter grew healthy enough to attract advertising.

Comfort levels. Imagine a math professor lecturing about chaos theory to kindergartners. Now put one of your company’s engineers across the table from one of your product’s end-users. The gulf isn’t nearly as wide as that between our professor and the tots, but it’s close enough to be a problem.

If you want people to understand and act upon your message, you have to put it in the reader’s language. That doesn’t mean dumbing it down; it means presenting the information at a level and in words that are comfortable for the audience.

Too often, decision-makers demand that copy contain their profession’s verbiage. So the reader doesn’t understand it? Guess he’s not as intelligent. Of course, if he doesn’t understand it, he can’t – and won’t – read it. So what’s the point of writing it?

To be effective, copy must be informative, must be compelling, and must overcome inertia – but it can’t do any of those things if it comes across as a foreign language.

In their eyes. The next time one of your company’s ads, brochures, or direct mail letters crosses your desk for approval, read it from the perspective of your target audience. Does it address their needs? Does it offer solutions to their problems? Or does it make your organization sound like an assembly of egomaniacs?

Make a conscious effort to stop talking to yourself, and you’ll do a much better job of talking to the people who really matter. Then you’ll bask in the knowledge that they’re talking about you.

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