My daughter and I were at a college’s Accepted Students Day, which is basically where school administrators wine and dine prospective incoming freshmen in the hopes they’ll choose that institution out of all those a student might’ve been accepted to.
The “wine and dine” bit would be metaphorical—because there is no actual wine involved. But we did get a nice chicken sandwich and quinoa salad at lunch. I could’ve done without the red onions in the quinoa, though. I piled them at the edge of my plate.
Anyway, at one point we were all gathered in an auditorium to hear about student life.
The heads of various departments spoke, including Campus Security, Student Activities, and Housing. They were trying hard to make student life there sound awesome: Community! Traditions! Camaraderie! Emotional support!
And the beds are soft! And the food is locally sourced! And the sun shines ALL. YEAR. ‘ROUND!
I’m exaggerating. But only a little. The panel was in full sales mode. Campus life sounded amazing; the picture they painted was rosier than an actual rose.
I get it… that’s their job. They were essentially highlighting the school’s best qualities to people they hoped would enroll, and the people they hoped would pay the tuition of those who enrolled.
(Side note #1: I said I “get it,” but I really don’t. I’d rather handle the truth than try to parse the shiny, buffed version of it.)
Then came the Q&A session at the end.
One parent raised his hand and asked a specific question about the dorms.
“You said you guarantee housing for freshmen,” he said. “But what about if too many students elect to go here? I’ve heard about students crowded into small dorm rooms—where rooms intended for two suddenly have three. They call that a forced triple?”
Ugh. I thought. “Forced triple” sounds almost violent. My daughter and I exchanged a glance.
The housing director smiled and didn’t miss a beat.
“Ah, yes,” she acknowledged. “But we call that expanded occupancy units.”
You know that record-scratch sound effect? You hear it in a movie when suddenly the momentum stops dead.
That’s what happened in the room when she reframed a concept everyone understood (“forced triple”) with a buzzword phrase intended to make it sound more palatable (“expanded occupancy units.”)
Maybe that jargon is the language of her academic or administrative office. But it wasn’t the language of parents or students sitting in that auditorium, each of whom immediately conjured up images of us all paying a premium for an annoyingly overcrowded and uncomfortable dorm room. Of stepping over other kids’ things to get to your bed.
In effect, it made me not trust that rosy picture they were painting overall. If she reframed the parent’s question in less vivid language to make it seem less egregious, what else was the school spinning to make it seem less terrible?
“Prefer the standard to the offbeat,” E.B. White wrote in his classic, The Elements of Style.
“Usually, the same ideas can be expressed less formidably, if one makes the effort.”
(I kind of love that E.B. himself sounds a bit formidable when he suggests it, too.)
The lessons here are several:
Speak, don’t spin.
“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear,” political strategist and pollster Frank Luntz wrote. Frank was the guy who reframed global warming as “climate change” and the estate tax as a “death tax.”
Don’t do Frank; do you. Speak the real language of your customers, using their words, not yours. Avoid obese words. Prefer E.B. White’s standard to the offbeat.
Context is everything.
If the administrator had been speaking to a room full of other administrators, expanded occupancy units would’ve made sense. But to parents? Not so much.
(Which reminds me: We are all marketers. But that’s a post for another day.)
Jargon is like cholesterol, my friend Doug Kessler says: There’s a good kind and a bad kind.
The good kind signals to others than you are an insider and you understand their world. The bad kind is often used when the speaker isn’t creative or smart enough to find better words. Or (worse) it’s used falsely: To elevate the speaker by making everyone else feel dumb, or to obscure meaning on purpose.
Don’t correct your customer.
Don’t use your own language or buzzwords to reframe, because it makes your customers not trust you.
In other words, metaphorically speaking: if it’s a forced triple, call it a forced triple.
Honesty in marketing goes a long way.
The promise of content marketing is that we can connect directly with the people we want to reach. But key to its effectiveness is trust: Tell a true story well with full permission of the audience; don’t self-promote, advertise, or dupe.
“What’s the difference between a jerk and a genius” in a marketing context? asks my friend Jeff Goins. What’s the difference between one who annoys, and one who inspires?
Essentially, it comes down to trust.
Which one do you want to be?