Using yesterday’s words to communicate with today’s consumers?

Rapidly tap your wrist in front of an AARP member, and she’ll assume that you’re worried about running late. Do the same thing in front of a 23-year-old co-worker, and you’ll get a blank stare. Odds are good that your youthful associate has never worn a wristwatch, and therefore he would never connect your wrist with your schedule.

Every year, Beloit College publishes what it calls a “mindset list.” The list (which is available at was created to remind professors that the school’s incoming freshmen have a slightly different view of the world around them.

For example, this year’s freshmen think of Clint Eastwood as an emotionally sensitive director, rather than as an unbalanced detective fond of sneering, “Feel lucky, punk?”  They’ve never twirled a phone cord around their fingers during a long call, because they’ve never used phones with cords. They’ve never thought of Vietnam as anything but a trading partner. And television has always offered hundreds of channels of nothing worth watching, all accessible through a handheld keypad, so “don’t turn that dial” is meaningless.

“It’s easy to smile and dismiss those differences as a quirk of culture.”

It’s easy to smile and dismiss those differences as a quirk of culture. But that annual list is a powerful reminder of something marketers should never forget: you can’t assume that your audience understands what you’re saying.

I see companies using a lot of terminology that’s lost on a steadily growing number of consumers. Why tell someone that your phone number is “toll-free” when they’ve never made a toll call? Why would an opinionated executive feel the need to climb up on a soapbox when soap comes in a bottle with a handy dispenser? And what is a soapbox, by the way?

The communication gap doesn’t appear only between younger folks and those of us who have celebrated more than a few more birthdays. I see it all the time between marketers and their intended audiences.

Bankers will talk about “credits” when their audiences understand “deposits.”  Doctors speak of “negative” results as though they are good things. Like many other professions and businesses, they explain things in ways that make perfect sense to them, but confuse those who need the information. Want to experience it firsthand? Visit the “support” section of a website for a technology product you use, or call your healthcare insurer with a simple question.  If you’re not baffled within 30 seconds, you’re either brilliant or darned lucky.

The most effective communicators frame their messages in language that their audiences understand. More than that, they choose language that the audiences actually use in day-to-day conversation. They make the extra effort to learn that language and translate their own messages into it.

It doesn’t matter who you’re trying to reach, whether it’s industrial engineers, teenage fashionistas, or AARP members — the key is to learn and then use the language that’s most familiar to them. And the best way to do that is to spend less time talking to them and more time listening.

That’s one of the biggest — and most untapped — benefits of today’s social media explosion. Facebook and its friends have transformed the process of marketing communications from one-way pronouncements into real conversations. But you don’t need to be online to accomplish the same things. Just pay attention to your customers. If 20 customers call your bank because they don’t understand what your form letter meant about debiting their account, maybe you should rewrite the letter.

It’s not that those customers are ignorant; it’s that you’re just not communicating. After all, making messages understandable is your responsibility, not theirs.

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