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Private Language and Marketing-Speak

2009 November 12
by Greg Satell

Marketing is, to a large extent, about communication.  Consumer desire needs to be translated into a product and, in turn, the consumer has to understand how the product will make his life better in some way.  A good marketer is a communication professional.

Many marketers often use their own private language, marketing-speak, to communicate among their own tribe and with others. They shouldn’t.  The marketing process is complex already and there’s no point in confusing everybody with opaque terminology that nobody understands.

Moreover, the often indecipherable babble obscures meaning to such an extent that often marketing professionals don’t understand it themselves.  In effect, you not only need to understand to communicate, but also be able to communicate if you are to truly understand.  Those who can’t say what they mean don’t understand the subject themselves.

The Beetle in the Box

Ludwig von Wittgenstein made the point in his essay, Private Language and Private Experience. Boiled down, his basic point was that if you can’t communicate something, you don’t really know it.

He made the analogy of a beetle in a box.  If everybody had something in a box that they called a beetle, but no one examine each other’s box, there would be no way of knowing whether everybody was actually talking about the same thing or not.

The word “beetle,” wouldn’t describe anything in particular.  It would just refer to something that everybody had in their box, whatever that was.  Everybody could just nod their heads not knowing whether they were talking about an insect, a car or something else entirely.

At first, the idea seems suspect.  Don’t I know things that I can’t explain?  For instance, I know what the color red is without being able to describe it and know when I’m in pain even if I’m not a doctor?  Can’t I know things without being able to explain what they are?

The Difference between Knowledge and Reference

Wittgenstein’s point was that there is a substantive difference between reference and meaning.  If one is to communicate, one has to be able to explain in public language.  For instance, it does no good to point to a chess piece and say “that’s a bishop” to someone who has never played the game.

If you are redecorating, you certainly wouldn’t call to the store and ask for “red paint.”  You would go and pick out a specific shade.  In much the same way, you wouldn’t expect a doctor to prescribe you medication for the “dull pain in your side that come and goes,” you would expect him to examine you.

When consequences are attached, the difference between knowledge and reference becomes cleart.  If marketers want to be taken seriously, we need to speak so that others can understand us.  If we can’t, it’s a sign that we really don’t know what we’re doing.

Using Our Brains vs. Our Brains Using Us

Modern neurology supports Wittgenstein (he died in 1951).  Most of the time, our brains run us and it’s a good thing that they do.  We do most things without thinking because cognition takes more time and effort than we can realistically expend on everything all of the time.  We do many things without knowing why or even thinking about it.

If there is a bus coming, we don’t deliberate on whether we should jump out of the way or not.  In fact, we usually aren’t even aware that we’re jumping until after we have done it.

However, as professionals, we are supposed to use our brains – to think.  That requires knowing things and their meaning.  The stakes are high.  Money and, more importantly, people’s jobs are at stake.  It is of paramount importance that marketers understand and be understood.

Private language will not do.

Microwave Communication

Many marketers would describe their job in this way:

I communicate the USP to the target demographic, while maximizing CTR by implementing the latest in SMM strategies.”


We use terminology as shortcuts.  It saves time and effort.  Like any modern convenience, it can make us more effective.  However, when it becomes a private language it obscures meaning.  Want to spot the incompetent in a meeting?  Look for the one who uses the most acronyms.

We often use a microwave at home for convenience, but wouldn’t pay for a restaurant to do the same.  We don’t consider it cooking. In much the same way, terminology shorthand can sometimes be useful internally, but not for general use.  The terms lose their meaning and obfuscate more than they communicate and eventually the original point is lost.

While everybody should communicate clearly, marketers have a special responsibility.  We have an important role to play integrating other functions as communication professionals.

Briefing in Public Language

Nowhere is the problem of private language as severe or as damaging as in briefing.  Marketers need to interface with other departments and with management in order to be effective.  Communication is paramount.  People need to understand each other.

Marketers are not a tribe unto themselves; they are part of an overall effort.   The inability of many marketers to speak in a public language is the reason that many people are suspicious of marketing as a whole.  Nobody wants to hear marketing gobbledygook.

So marketers need to demand public language, of themselves and of others.  There is no point in having meetings with technical people only to be drowned in technical language.  The absence of meaning will only poison the entire process.  And there is no point in explaining ourselves in marketing language.  That’s not sophistication, it’s incompetence.

Communicating in a Public Language

How to ensure that you are speaking in a public, not a private language?  One simple rule that has worked for me is to try to explain things so that my mother can understand them.

Moreover, the process of translating highly complicated information into common language enhances not only other’s understanding, but our own as well.  If you can’t explain something in common, everyday language you haven’t mastered the information.

Wittgenstein chastised other philosophers for playing “language games.”  As marketers, we don’t have the luxury of existing in an ivory tower.  Our jobs matter.  Products have to be developed to satisfy needs and desires, while consumers have to understand how they can benefit.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, after a lifetime of accomplishment and conquest, wrote:

“Then what should we work for?

Only this: Proper understanding, unselfish action; truthful speech.”

Good advice.

– Greg

32 Responses leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    November 12, 2009

    Your comment about not paying for microwaving in a restaurant is key. Most of the food eaten in restaurants is microwaved, especially in pub-restaurants.
    I once employed a 16 year old kid to help make signs. He told me that in his last job he was a chef. On questioning, all he did was use the microwave.
    Similarly we use jargon to make us seem more important than we really are. And it fools most of the people most of the time.
    How many of us will pay a premium for Dover sole and french fried potatoes with pea fricasse when we’re really having fish, chips and mushy peas? Describe it as it is and it won’t sell, or will only sell as a bargain price. Wrap it in a few words which confuse the customer and make him think you know more than he does and you get top dollar for it.
    The proof is in the selling of SEO, PPC and Email by our colleagues.

    Don’t ditch the jargon – it’s what your clients are paying you for!

  2. November 12, 2009

    “I communicate the USP to the target demographic, while maximizing CTR by implementing the latest in SMM strategies.”


    HUH? exactly….Hit the nail right on the head!!!!! i know people who speak like this and worst still try to sell a product speaking like this. I havent got the time of day for them!

  3. Keith permalink
    November 12, 2009

    I understand where your coming from, but I had to laugh at your long, long rant. Is it a deliberate joke or just a marketing gaff?

    From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1603:


    This business is well ended.
    My liege, and madam, to expostulate
    What majesty should be, what duty is,
    Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
    Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
    Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
    And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
    I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
    Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
    What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?
    But let that go.

    I couldn’t put it better, obviously.


  4. November 12, 2009

    Greg, this is an excellent, thoughtful piece. I could not possibly agree more with all your points. And it doesn’t only apply to marketing; it’s true of every purpose and medium of communication there is. If I can’t make something clear to a listener/reader, then I am wasting time for both of us AND isolating each of us that much more, all in the same stroke. It’s failure with enduring consequences. I think of the utter resentment and distrust I feel toward much of academia, which is so lost in a swirl of argot that means nothing to us knuckle-draggers that they are, with at least some good reason, distrusted broadly. Ditto the “Inside D.C.” language/conceptualization of much of the mainstream media, which serves to further the disconnection between people and power. I could go on and on, and mercifully won’t. Again, this is a great piece that I will promote for readership as much as I can. Thanks for distilling your thoughts so clearly.

  5. November 12, 2009

    This reminds me of Peter Druckers view on the responsibility of the specialist to effectively communicate to the non-specialist using language/terms that are common to both, rather than using specialist terms.

  6. November 12, 2009


    Interesting perspective. Thanks for sharing it.

    – Greg

  7. November 12, 2009


    Thanks. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  8. November 12, 2009


    Did you recite that from memory? Wow! I’m impressed.

    – Greg

  9. November 12, 2009


    As one “knuckle dragger” to another, I appreciate the sentiment:-)


  10. November 12, 2009


    I’m also a big Drucker fan, but I would go further. The specialist also has a responsibility to himself. If you can’t explain something in everyday language, you really haven’t digested it. So by speaking exclusively in jargon, you are depriving yourself of that opportunity.

    – Greg

  11. November 12, 2009

    Ouch, for the stereotype Greg. Um, my Mom is a PhD, so…sometimes she has to explain things to me in terms I can understand.

    Peter, you are right, you can’t just say “Cow” with a thud onto the plate. I think what people want is thought leadership. And sometimes acronyms DO signal “oh, oh I better find out what that means.” No kidding.

    But I understand, communication is difficult.

  12. November 13, 2009


    Actually, Mom was an acronym meaning “man on main street.”

    (Ooops! I guess that excuse undermines my point, doesn’t it:-)

    – Greg

  13. November 16, 2009

    Hi Greg
    I think successful marketing is all about effective communication. Jargon, charts, methods, statistics, and studies all have their place, but in the end it all boils down to product, message and the communication of that message. There is an art to it!
    (and happy birthday by the way : )


  14. November 16, 2009

    Thanks Momblebee:-)

  15. Rebecca Fahlin permalink
    November 17, 2009

    I agree! It is so important for marketers to use language that everyday people can relate to. When they try to impress the customer with a lot of high fluentant jargon it just leaves them fleeing to the exit. I believe in the acronym k.i.s.s. (keep it simple stupid).

  16. November 17, 2009

    Thanks, Rebecca:-)

    – Greg

  17. November 23, 2009

    I couldn’t agree with you more about the importance of gearing your language towards your audience both in person as well as in your writing. It can sometimes be difficult for us to remember to use the words that our listener will actually understand rather than taking the lazy way out and inserting our jargon. Great delivery, this was very entertaining. Thanks!

  18. November 23, 2009

    Thx. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  19. November 30, 2009

    I am not a marketing person — no experience, credentials, etc. I am, however, a guy that came up with a comprehensive and complex idea for connecting individuals to better qualified human and data resources, and to do so in a functional organization that relates to a singular passion, music. While I saw simple pieces and simple premise, I had to tie everything to simple principle.

    The interesting thing has been that, first, I realized the need to be able to communicate this to my mother, as analog an individual as you get. Thanks for the validation.

    Second, as others got on board to make this vision a reality, I kept running into “market speak”. It looked like, sounded like, and acted like marketing. Turned me off. Amazingly, my concerns were understood, by those defining strategy, were addressed immediately, and are being acted upon. The result is, after eight years of working toward launch, this attitude, applied in other areas of business, as well, is bringing everything to a point of tangibility and a dream come true.

    Thank you for the affirmation.

  20. November 30, 2009


    That’s very nice to hear.

    The truth is, people who know what they’re talking about can explain things normally, and usually do. If someone can’t, it’s a red flag that they haven’t given the matter much thought or don’t have enough experience to fully internalize relevant concepts. They are just parroting things they’ve heard.

    – Greg

  21. November 30, 2009

    Thank you, Greg. The fact is, what may seem to be intuitively obvious, to one person, needs to be explained to the next. If the explanation is too involved, you have to find the reference point that demonstrates what you are trying to get across. Hence, communication is not only verbiage, it is concept symbolism that implies action according to intent. If you are right on, you will find the reference that speaks to both the common guy and the expert.

    For example, one can talk about social networking. The examples are endless. Does MySpace, Facebook, Friendster, LinkedIn, or Plaxo best fit the example of the pathways you intend to traverse? Pick one (or even two) and marry them to a qualifier — the secret sauce that distinguishes you from others and embodies the real value of your proposition.

    Does this make sense?

  22. November 30, 2009


    Sure, but I think it’s more than that.

    If it is really obvious and you’ve really thought about it, you should be able to explain it in everyday language.

    – Greg

  23. Jay Foster permalink
    December 2, 2009

    My observation of marketing speak is this: the larger the shortcomings of the product, the more superflous and flowery and empty the language becomes…sort of an inverse proportional relationship. If your product is good and meets the market need, then just tell what it does…simplicity is power…

  24. December 2, 2009


    Good point. Thanks.

    – Greg

  25. December 2, 2009

    It’s absolutely fair to require marketers (and other specialists) to communicate in plain language to non-specialists. As a lawyer turned marketer I am sensitive to the inference that using terms of art with a non-specialist audience is a grab for a kind of priestly authority. In my experience the culprit is more often laziness than ego, but I can’t fault anyone on the receiving end for seeing it differently.

    In fact, speaking marketing-speak to non-marketers (or legalese to non-lawyers) conveys no more authority than speaking Swedish to non-Swedes. It confuses the audience and invites them to draw invidious conclusions about the character, personality and intellect of marketers. As a result, good ideas may be poorly received, intelligent risks may not be taken and buy-in for anything at all may be hard to achieve.

  26. December 3, 2009


    Good points – well said.


    – Greg

  27. Peter permalink
    December 3, 2009

    This book review from Government Computing Weekly highlights some of the reasons why people use the language they do…

    “If you work in the state sector and you ever write anything, whether for public or internal consumption, you should have a look at Bad Language: The Use and Abuse of Official Language, writes SA Mathieson. The report, released by the Public Administration Select Committee this week, is concise and clearly written. Also, it might just save your job.

    The report does not single out computing in its attack on jargon and unclear language, but it still provides a warning. Much of what is written about ICT relies, such as ‘ICT’, on TLAs – three letter acronyms – and on metaphors as hard to grasp as clouds.

    The report correctly blames management consultants for much of this jargon. They can benefit from its use: if you don’t understand something, you might conclude the speaker is very clever and award more business.

    For public servants, unclear language can also be used to conceal. But this is devious – and at times like this it’s also counter-productive.

    Government computing has some good stories to tell about making life easier for people and saving money. But if its practitioners insist on banging on about CRM and ROI, the public and their elected representatives may well conclude that if they can’t understand it, it can safely be scrapped.”

    I think it boils down to three things:
    1. Jargon ridden language can be quicker and/or more accurate for people in the know (we don’t need CRM explained, for example). This can also be important in getting across to people that you understand their field of endeavour – important in making the bond essential to sell.
    2. Language can be used to make the audience think the speaker is cleverer than they are and this can be useful in increasing the price charged for products and services. It can also be used to evade questions, conceal the true intent or extent of some initiative and to make the listener feel this subject is beyond them.
    3. Experts often forget who that they have to use a different language according to who they are talking too and use an inappropriate level of jargon (too much, too little or the wrong jargon for the audience), thus failing to get their point across or make a bond with the audience.

    One last point – this is in UK English. Imagine how much more complicated it gets when there is also a translation issue.

  28. December 3, 2009


    Good points. The objective is not to totally abandon jargon. It’s a convenient shortcut and saves time among professionals of the same discipline.

    However, if someone can’t explain what they want to say without using jargon, they really don’t know what they’re talking about.

    – Greg

  29. December 4, 2009

    Great post and reminder. For those of us who have made marketing our career choice, I’m sure we are all guilty at times of speaking marketing speak. And especially as we all evolve to become social practitioners, your points are well taken. Thanks again for your thoughts.

  30. December 4, 2009


    Thanks. Have a nice weekend.

    – Greg

  31. John Cavanaugh permalink
    December 6, 2009


    Great article. And so true.

    The only tempering comment I can offer is that some marketing terms are useful if they are explained to the client and are pertinent to the discussion. But most often I’ve seen marketingspeak be a determent to the relationship with the client – as well as to any constructive dialogue.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  32. December 6, 2009



    I agree that jargon can be a useful convenience, but usually it’s a crutch.

    – Greg

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