Say What You Mean

E.B. White and William Strunk, in their simple and seminal writing manual, give some sage advice: “Omit needless words.” The best way to say something is also the most direct way to say something. Yet often, in our quest to omit “needless” words, we omit the right words entirely and rely on jargon-powered insider shorthand instead. Part of this is habit; we’re accustomed to finding creative ways to express complex ideas (“NASA” is a lot easier to say than “National Aeronautics and Space Administration”). But jargon dependency also indicates a lack of two things that are critical to the success of any marketing campaign: confidence in our offerings and in our audience’s ability to understand them (we’re pretty content to almost exclusively associate “NASA” with rocket ships and space exploration; that way we don’t have to worry about spelling “aeronautics”).

Often in our work as higher-ed marketers, we encounter, and sometimes get taken in by, jargon. It has its place, though as someone who has spent most of her career studying words and their power to communicate, shape and help make meaning of life’s most important experiences, I’d advocate for less.

Some examples include:

  • The impulse to name any new program, regardless of the physical space that houses it (or doesn’t), an “institute” or “center.” Colleges and universities themselves often don’t even know what they mean by “institute” or “center”—they just know it’s a way of setting off something that’s new or slightly different. The general institutional wisdom seems to suggest that an “institute” or “center” is elevated above, say, a “program” or “committee.” But most students (prospective and current) don’t see any discernible difference.
  • The prevalence of acronyms in use at virtually every college and university in the continental United States—they identify campus landmarks, areas of study, professional titles, special events, traditions, etc. Acronyms are the “put a bird on it” of higher ed.
  • Overly simplified/overly complicated language choices based on what we assume a young audience’s level of understanding to be (“Will a 16-year-old really ‘get’ this? Is this on their level?”) and what we assume they will find compelling (“Is this hip enough? Do teenagers think this is cool?”).

Language can alienate an audience as much as draw them in. At some marketing firms, my job would be called “content creator” or “content director,” which is part of why I don’t work at those firms. At RHB, I was hired as a “writer” and promoted to become a “senior writer.” Not only does the word “writer” more accurately describe what I do, but it also seems to honor it as much as “content creator” seems to devalue it. “Writer” conjures particular and well-formed associations (storytelling, thoughtfulness, research, etc.). “Content creator” is a newer and more ambiguous term that provokes more questions than associations (“What is content?” “How quickly can you make it?” “Do you have to read it?”).

Likewise, the words an institution chooses to represent itself convey more than meaning, though it’s important to remember that is their primary and most important function (if it’s an apple, don’t name it an orange—unless you don’t care if your audience trusts you). They convey attitude, approach and aspirations. As we’ve all heard many times, words matter. Words have power. Usually those adages are invoked to help us unpack some of the more loaded pieces of our shared lexicon, but it’s important to keep them in mind whenever you’re using words to communicate ideas, even when that idea is something as seemingly simple and straight forward as a job description.

There are, however, several instances where simple choices are just that—simple, but not particularly descriptive or all that straightforward. As it relates to higher ed, an easy example would be naming your core general education curriculum “Core.” Yes, it’s at the core of your curriculum; yes, it’s forged of educational experiences that get to the core of what your institution offers. But hundreds of other institutions offer similar programs that are named the exact same thing. A core curriculum at Institution X isn’t the same as a core curriculum at Institution Y, and its name should reflect that (if it’s a Golden Delicious, don’t name it a Granny Smith). Sometimes, a little bit of descriptive flash is more than just permissible—it’s necessary.

Ultimately, the rules that make us good communicators are similar to the rules that make us good people.

At RHB, we’ve experienced success guiding our clients in higher education with this approach, which includes some of the following pragmatic advice:

Have clear eyes and tell the truth.

What do you actually want your audience to understand? What can you actually offer them? Have confidence in your product and describe it honestly.

Be thoughtful.

Choose your words carefully—they should be descriptive, accurate, as simple as possible and as evocative as possible.

Be respectful.

Your target audience is your target audience for a reason; respect their ability to understand and appreciate what you have to offer. Simplifying is ideal; “dumbing down” isn’t.

Remember that words matter.

The language you choose to use does more than just describe what you offer—it describes you. Your attitude, your approach, your aspirations.

Don’t get so distracted by flash that you forget about character, but don’t be afraid to shine.

Flash should never trump substance, but it can be great in moderation. And the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If what you offer can live up to a shiny name, give it one (i.e. Beyoncé, Magic Kingdom, Cheesy Gordita Crunch, etc.).

  • Spread the word
Caroline Diggins

Caroline is the Lead Writer at RHB.