Verbal Pitfalls For Email Newsletters

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image of a red Swingline staplerMy husband works for the federal government, and from what I can gather, he and his colleagues communicate using 85% acronyms and 15% actual words. This facilitates efficient communication AND makes them all feel like they’re part of a super-secret cool-kid club. Bonus.

However, when he’s talking to a member of the public, he doesn’t prattle on about HZEC-12 Forms and 6T Exceptions.* He uses the full names of practices, forms, and policies when needed, and just explains the purposes of these tools when the full name feels irrelevant. This, too, facilitates efficient communication. It also ensures that the people he helps don’t feel talked-down to, confused, or overwhelmed.

Acronyms are great when you’re communicating with other insiders, but they’re often less useful when you’re interfacing with customers or the public, as you’re often doing through your newsletter. Industry jargon, marketing buzzwords, and slang are also risky bets to sprinkle in amongst your plain speech. Here are some reasons to proceed with caution when using specialized language in email newsletters.

How (And When) To Use Specialized Language In Email Newsletters

Industry Jargon

If you send out a newsletter about advancements in laboratory safety that is primarily read by chemists, science teachers, and lab techs, by all means talk about coags, T-max, and dips. If you send out a newsletter about safe lab practices that’s mostly read by first-year medical students, you might want to dial it back. It’s true that jargon can illustrate how in-the-know you are, but it can also alienate and confuse your readers. Know your audience, and use jargon only when you’re certain they’ll understand it.

Acronyms

You may be thinking, “Won’t the same guidelines that apply to jargon apply to acronyms?” And the answer is generally, yes. But with acronyms you have the ability to introduce and explain: In the newsletter you use to promote your social media consulting business, you can write, “I can help you maximize your website’s search engine optimization (SEO) …” and then use the acronym in any text that follows. Only do this if you’re going to be talking extensively about the acronym’ed topic, or when using an acronym that readers may have seen many times and wondered about.

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Marketing buzzwords

I’ll level with ya: Unless you’re writing to an audience of marketing professionals, there’s really no reason to lean on buzzwords. Talking about “storyscaping,” “growth hacking,” and “pain points” won’t impress readers, even if it’s marketing services you’re trying to sell them. Stick to layperson language and explain concepts succinctly instead of taking buzzword shortcuts.

Slang

It’s true that you’ve got a little more leeway with slang: Making a joke about selfies or being on fleek can help you seem socially aware and clued-in. Slang in enduring prose like novels and memoirs will eventually make the writing seem dated, but newsletters are fleeting and this risk is much lower. However! Make sure you’re using slang terms that you’re truly and personally familiar with and focus on the ones that are in current and widespread use: You don’t want to make yourself look foolish by using a term incorrectly, nor do you want to make your audience feel out-of-touch.

When in doubt, go with straight-up, comprehensible layperson language in your email newsletters. But if you’re mixing in any speciality terms or abbreviations, just make sure you know your audience will understand and appreciate them.

*Mainly because these are things that I just made up. I’M not part of the super-secret cool-kid club, remember?

Photo Credit: Sharon Drummond via Compfight cc

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What’s your brand’s verbal identity?

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Recently I spent time advising a communicator who’s working to improve her colleagues’ understanding of verbal identity.

Many organizations have visual identities that specify how people must convey the brand through color, fonts and imagery. The details in these visual branding guides are astounding—down to half a point in type and a fraction of an inch on the page.

Verbal identity doesn’t get quite so much love. Some companies have a customized style guide. Others at least specify whether to follow AP style or The Chicago Manual of Style. Most have a list of acronyms somewhere, so you can interpret the alphabet soup of such terms as KPI, ROI and API.

But a full-on guide to expressing a brand in words? That’s a rare and wonderful thing.

Download this free white paper, “Auditing your Internal Communications,” for a step-by-step guide to assess which communications channels work best for your organization.

So, how do you establish a verbal identity?

How do you get people to communicate with one voice, to convey a consistent image and unified message? Then, if everyone uses the same voice, how do you avoid monotony?

You can be consistent without being monotonous, but you might have to give employees permission to expand their vocabulary.

Wait. What?

Your company leadership has probably never restricted anyone to a particular lexicon. In most cases, the employee handbook doesn’t say, “Use these words, not those.”

Your organization’s most fundamental messages could be sending signals about the words employees believe they are supposed to use.

Look at your company’s statements about mission, vision and values. They’re loaded with general terms—on purpose. We craft these messages to appeal to virtually any audience, whether internal or external. We want them to have a long shelf life. As a result, we construct them as big tents that shelter a host of scouts—in other words, a lot of ideas and behaviors.

Because those statements are approved and widely published, employees look to them as a source of vocabulary.

Suppose your company values statement includes words like “integrity” and “innovation.” Trust me on this: Every day, employees force-fit those words into presentations, emails and other documents. They drop them into messages as a signal that their ideas and actions are in line with company direction.

In day-to-day business, though, writers and speakers can’t afford to use general terms and broad statements. They need specifics that result in shared vision, accurate understanding and motivated action.

We must give people permission to use their own words.

Let everyone know it’s OK—in fact, it’s expected—to think past predictable keywords and in-house lingo. Tell them they should convey messages in their own words, with specifics that no one else could provide.

Don’t tell me your project “supports the company’s innovation agenda.”

Instead, show me how “our team of engineers brainstormed 67 alternative formats for the widget and chose the one that wowed customers three ways: It’s faster, it’s easier, and it’s downright fun to use.”

That first, generic approach makes your message sound like any other. You blend in with the rest. You’re “supporting” an “agenda.” What does that even mean?

The second message is distinct because of its details. “Engineers.” Ah, you have skilled people at work. “Sixty-seven formats.” You did your homework. “Customer feedback.” You sought external perspective. “Results in three categories.” I’m listening!

What does it take to make this difference? Genuine details about the work, rather than a few forced words that match the company’s catch phrases.

Have you given people permission to use their own words? Please share how you did it and what happened next.

Beth Nyland is creative communicator and founder of Spencer Grace LLC. A version of this article first appeared on her blog and LinkedIn.(Image via)
 
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