After all the uproar about Coca-cola employing a commercial in which immigrants sang “America the Beautiful” in their native languages instead of English (as the grandson of immigrants, I found it touching, beautiful, and far more patriotic than the outcry), it occurred to me that most people mistakenly believe that Americans share a common language.

I learned that lesson as a child when my family was vacationing in New England. We sat down at a lunch counter, and the friendly man asked me what I wanted to drink. I asked him what kind of pop he had, and he looked confused. I repeated my question, and he genuinely asked, “What’s pop?” Surprised at his ignorance, I replied, “You know, like Coke, Pepsi …” and he grinned and said, “Oh, you mean soda!”

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Imagine what would happen if the average math professor found himself lecturing to kindergartners. His words about chaos theory would fly over the group’s heads and the room would revert to real chaos. 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 might as well be.

One of the most challenging tasks facing those who create marketing materials is putting them in language that’s right for the reader. That doesn’t necessarily mean dumbing them down; it means that information should be presented at a level and in words that are comfortable for the audience.

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No matter how much money a company invests in its advertising and marketing efforts, no matter how hard they try to create and promote a compelling brand, and no matter what they do to get your business, they often lose sight of the fact that their reputation hinges on every employee or representative who has contact with customers and prospects.

Why then do so many companies put people who are unable to communicate clearly in these frontline roles? Whether it’s someone at the counter who can’t deliver a coherent answer to a customer question, or “Bill,” the highly accented voice that tells you he is really sorry you are having this problem, and then offers advice you can’t understand, these poor choices forever tarnish your impression of the organization behind them.

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Are you unique? That’s good. Are you very unique? That’s not so good.

No, I’m not suggesting that individuality is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. A very powerful thing. And the word “unique” should be a very powerful word. Unfortunately, it’s misused so often that it is losing its power. Maybe even its uniqueness.

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