According to best-selling authors, Stanford and Duke professors, and all-around incredible sibling duo Chip and Dan Heath, “if you want to sound like a PhD, write like a 4th grader.”
It’s timeless advice from their book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” that seeks to explain the inner workings of what makes concepts memorable, resonant, and for lack of a better term “sticky” in the human brain. The book explores the staying power of everything from urban legends – why we remember stories told around the campfire decades ago, but not the industry white paper we’ve read three times over – to business campaigns like the branding victory of Southwest, the low-price airline that proved it could compete with the giants of the sky.
Here’s why their work matters especially in the world of PR. Marketing lingo, like any business language, often runs the risk of devolving into jargon. In other industries, where communications are confined to a tight perimeter around the water-cooler, this sort of verbiage may smack of self-applause, but it does no substantive harm. But when it seeps into broader, public-facing lexicons, jargon has one pronounced effect – purposeful or not: jargon communicates to outsiders that this subject -- whatever it is – is above you, beyond you, simply not for you.
For, if you can’t understand it, how are you supposed to pay attention to it?
That makes jargon a device non-grata in the marketing world. As communicators, our mission isn’t to appeal to people already “in the know”—it’s winning over those who aren’t. And while business-speak may be appreciated in executive boardrooms, back on Main Street, there’s nothing less influential than ‘technobabble.’ To persuade, you must first connect on an emotional level – and jargon is nothing if not a rhetorical wall.
Allow me to offer an example that’s near to my heart – and, if I’m truly being honest, a bragging opportunity simply too good, and too long overdue, to pass by. I’m a Cubs fan. Always have been, and always will be. (As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of Chicago, but you can’t put him in Yankees Stadium…)
And with baseball’s opening day officially in the rearview mirror, let’s look to how last year’s World Series Champs have been promoting the 2017 season? By beating their chests? Pointing to last year’s trophy? Talking stats and season projections?
Having cinched the pennant and gone on to reach the pinnacle of success, the Cubs chose to get back to basics to communicate the fundamentals: commitment, thankfulness, laughs, love, and for the big World Series moment itself, brotherhood. New ads feature shots of the crowds in blue sharing high fives, autographs, and joy, reminding us that baseball is about more than the players – it’s about the fans.
Even the 2017 tagline, “That’s Cub,” is a catchphrase coined by the franchise’s minor-league players. Humble origins indeed. (Can you imagine if they went for a literal line of inside baseball? ‘Cubs 2017: Sluggers and the skipper sealing sweeps with sabermetrics!)
Make no mistake: emotion is key. You can have the audience, the rationale, the track record, but without emotional resonance, any viewer or reader’s interest can be explained away. Emotion is a personalizing force, transforming the transactional relationship between consumer and product to an experiential one. Consumers recognize best how a brand fits in the narrative of their lives when they feel it.
Indulge just one more sports-related example. Nike doesn’t just sell its customers the promise of better athletic performance. It sells them their own personal hero’s journey. Take for instance the moment a long-distance runner hits the wall, when his doubt and willpower does battle. We fear he will give up. Our breath hitches as he nearly does. Our hearts swell when he perseveres.
In those fifteen, thirty second ads, we recognize ourselves as that runner. Graeme Newell explains Nike’s emotional outreach in such campaigns, summarizing, “Instead of inspiring customer loyalty by singling out an external enemy, it pulls out the stops and focuses on an internal foe – our laziness.”. The desire to defeat our lazy selves is a visceral feeling; we want to be heroes. Nike makes masterly use of emotion to remind us that all we need is to “Just do it.”
Authentic marketing is a humanizing endeavor. Instead of targeting demographics, or chasing the next big thing, successful campaigns from sports to technology prioritize going back to basics. They dump the jargon and reach out to audiences as people, not segments to be sold.