The buzzwords have taken over!
Our business and personal conversations are filled with phrases used to show that we belong and create a feeling of being “in the club.” These are words weaved into our day-to-day vocabulary in conscious, or even subconscious, attempts to communicate our intelligence and “wokeness” to the world (think words and phrases like “hone in on,” “derive actionable insights,” and “impactful.”)
Sometimes, we use buzzwords and phrases as shields to prevent further interrogation on a topic we don’t know a lot about, or as a substitute for taking the time to work out what we truly mean. Think words and phrases that create (instead of remove) ambiguity – like “holistic,” “innovative,” “best practices,” “disrupt,” and “streamline.” These are words that temporarily stymie questioning, so we can avoid committing to specifics or having to say what we really mean.
What if went back to the building blocks of conversation? Using simple, direct language to communicate ideas and themes that created authentic feelings of empathy and belonging? Would we accomplish the goal of truly connecting with our customers, prospects, colleagues, and friends? Would we be able to communicate that we “get it” without using unnecessarily verbose (or “sausage”) language? Would we even be able to share when we don’t “get it” and try to learn more?
In this episode, the Umault team sits down with our copywriter, Steve Lindstrom, to explore:
- The current climate of buzzword overload and its impact on our language
- The value of using simple language in marketing and advertising
- Tactics for simplifying your language in a way that helps expand the reach and performance of your business
Force yourself to explain the idea in the simplest language possible. Clients don’t wear their suits to bed. So just because we use words like “disparate,” doesn’t mean that that’s how people really want to be spoken to.
Part of what people give up when they start using trinket words, ornament words is the [audience’s] very desire to get at the deeper meaning of what they’re saying.
One of the great values that I saw working in a crowdsourced situation was that we had a bigger group of people look at ideas, generate ideas, and filter ideas and edit ideas. Allow [people] to have something to say about [the creative] and encourage people. Create an environment where people can have their say and give you their take.
Resources, videos, and other goodies we talked about
You can listen to the episode using the player embedded above, or you can read a full transcript below.
Guy Bauer: Welcome to So You Need A Video, the only podcast …
Tory Merritt: That we’re aware of …
Guy Bauer: … About simplifying your brand sales message with video. Hi and welcome to the show. I’m Guy Bauer. I’m the CEO and Creative Director of Umault. I am joined by Tory Merritt our Account Director, Head of Client Services.
Tory Merritt: Hey.
Guy Bauer: Hello, and by Steve Lindstrom, Copywriter.
Steve Lindstrom: Hello.
Guy Bauer: How would you describe yourself?
Steve Lindstrom: I’m a loser copywriter.
Guy Bauer: Get out of here.
Steve Lindstrom: No, I’ve been a copywriter, I’ve been in the marketing game my whole life doing a million different things. Worked for a long time for a big Fortune 50 company, ran the circus there and hired writers and all that stuff. Did a bunch of software stuff. Most recently spent about five years at a startup that crowdsourced creative, but the whole time, the through line for the work that I did was writing. Sooner or later, wherever I was, however I was announced coming in the door, people would figure out, “Hey, this guy can write, he can make this stuff sparkle a little bit.” So usually I was used throughout my career to polish things. And maybe we can talk about the difference between using a writer to polish and using a writer to construct ideas and stories.
Guy Bauer: Cool. And I just realized because I’m sick, me and you sound the same now.
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. I always sound like this in the morning. Yeah. I got a lot of gravel there.
Guy Bauer: You have a gravel voice. I like it.
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. We’ll see how it really sounds to these fine mics.
Guy Bauer: So today’s topic, the reason why Steve is here is Steve, you wrote an article, Don’t Talk Like A Sausage.
Steve Lindstrom: Don’t Talk Like A Sausage. Yeah.
Guy Bauer: And I read it and I love it. It’s kind of like … it spoke to me. It’s everything I believe in, but just define … So what do you mean by talking like a sausage? What does that mean?
Steve Lindstrom: Well, one of the things that being in a corporate environment exposed me to was the way that language would sort of come and go like a virus. You would see all of a sudden words would show up that had not been used before. I think “partner” was the first one that hit me. When “partner” became a verb-
Guy Bauer: We partner with.
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah, we partner with, we need to partner to do this. And I was like, “Where did that come from?” It really jarred me when I first heard it and it was like, “This is strange.” And then what was odd or was like all of a sudden it was everywhere.
Tory Merritt: It becomes a buzzword.
Steve Lindstrom: It was something that people said to sort of show their secret membership card in the corporate hierarchy or whatever and say, “Yeah, I belong. I get it. I talk like this too.” And stuff like that just spreads. Sometimes it sticks. I think it’s another thing that’s odd about this phenomenon as I thought originally partner would come and go, but it didn’t, it’s still around. I mean it’s very much part of the vocabulary now.
Steve Lindstrom: And the other thing that you see now is that that’s sort of the general trends. Sooner or later, Webster’s gives up and just goes, “Yeah, I guess we’ll allow this sense of this term or phrase.” Another one of recent vintage that Webster’s I think just gave up. We language geeks sit around and when the announcement comes it’s like, “There it goes.” And the last one was hone in on. I also wrote a blog post about that, “Don’t Hone In On Me, Bro.” But that’s like originally it’s home in on, right?
Guy Bauer: Like a homing pigeon.
Steve Lindstrom: Because homing. Right. It started actually home in on the phrase, I looked it up, it came in heavy with a radar in World War II you would go home in on the target via radar, which is reflects the way radar works. It has a sense to it. To “hone” something is to sharpen its edge. And the notion of like to edge in on seems like it’s not right. It was like coined literally as a cooler “home in on.” Somebody thought, “That sounds kind of cool. I like the way that that sense blends. It’s like I’m sharpening in on.” And it’s really just junk.
Guy Bauer: It’s nothing.
Steve Lindstrom: Right. But it’s a way … All of a sudden it sounds slightly cooler than “home in” on. And everybody jumps on it. It sounds slightly cooler, but one of the points I try to make frequently is it isn’t cooler. I’m aware that I frequently sound like a grammar scold, right? Like, “There’s this little group of people-“
Tory Merritt: You’re in the chat.
Steve Lindstrom: They get to get on Facebook-
Tory Merritt: Tumblr.
Steve Lindstrom: … And they talk about the little business cliches that they hate the most. And it’s kind of like we’re model airplane makers or civil war recreators and we’re going to preserve this old idea. And I get that we sound like that. But the fact of the matter is there are more of us than you think, people that really listen and in fact, even people who use terms like hone in on and partner and empower and-
Tory Merritt: I use all of those.
Steve Lindstrom: …Impactful, even those people trust people less who use those term.
Guy Bauer: That’s interesting.
Steve Lindstrom: Right? I mean, that’s the really weird jiu-jitsu going on in this thing. It’s like you are more affected by somebody who doesn’t use those recent coinages. And I did an experiment. I downloaded a bunch of the very best TED Talks. You can get the scripts and I did a search for like “empower”s and “hone in on”s and “impactful”s and they don’t show up that often. Those people talk a bit more plainly and they don’t tend to use words as like objects.
Guy Bauer: Right.
Steve Lindstrom: Right. And that’s the other part of this we can-
Guy Bauer: When you use words like “hone in on” or “impactful” or “empower,” aren’t you really just saying, “I don’t know what to say here, so I’m just going to pick from the public domain of words?”
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. I think that’s part of it. One of the example that I try to point to when I’m just discussing this over beers at a bar or something is look at the Gettysburg address beyond the four score and seven years ago thing, which is pretty, you know, it rings out over the years. But beyond that, it’s all very simple words.
Steve Lindstrom: And what’s happening is simple words are being used to create a subtle and deep construct. And it’s the construct, it’s the architecture of the whole argument that declares itself over time as you’re reading that and you can … it’s a pretty quick read, but it’s a great lesson. Anybody listening to this podcast just go look at it and note that there’s no sizzle words, there’s no stunt language or anything. Again beyond that, that stunner beginning, it’s just very plain language that is pulling together-
Guy Bauer: A thought.
Steve Lindstrom: … A big idea. Yeah, very big, several thoughts that weave together and part of what I think people give up when they start using like trinket words, ornament words is the very desire to get at the deeper meaning of what they’re saying.
Guy Bauer: So I have so many thoughts as you’re speaking here. I mean, you’re speaking to my soul. I love it. I think one thought is I actually was just watching a Steve Jobs presentation from like, it was like not even a … My YouTube just starts suggesting weird videos to me. So it’s like Steve Jobs introducing the Macbook Air or whatever.
Steve Lindstrom: Right, right.
Guy Bauer: And I was so struck by how simple he spoke. Just so simple, no big words, no smart words. I feel like people use these words because they want to look smart, like you said, look in the club or look like they are part of it. And I agree with you. He used simple words to illustrate a quite complex thought for you. But the way he communicated into your brain was through just very base language.
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. And I think that’s the thing is like it is very often … there’s another one of these words that showed up that again, the first time I heard it they just clank against my ear. It’s like watching a basketball, like shot in the first round of the NCAA is just like go into the stance, “impactful.” I was like, “What the hell is that? Like what is going on there?” And it’s basically, to me it’s a really great one of these because it really demonstrates what these words do. It’s sort of empties meaning, right? There’s a million other things to say. “Influential,” it had an effect it, how did it have its effect. There’s all this stuff behind that you really want to get to and talk about or that people would be interested in. But “impactful” just says it all.
Steve Lindstrom: And it sounds kind of tough and it sounds kind of manly and it sounds like full of action. Another favorite, “actionable” which is a legal term that meant something back in the day. Now it means take action now-
Guy Bauer: “Actionable insights.”
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah, insights are actionable. If you have an insight that isn’t actionable, I mean, what are you doing?
Guy Bauer: So what are some other sausage words you have on your list? I think everyone just start rolling your hate recorder and-
Tory Merritt: Where does “sausage” come from is my first question?
Steve Lindstrom: My mom used to say, “You’re talking like a sausage. Don’t talk like a sausage.” To me, I don’t know how that came back, but I like the idea of something just big and fat, and like just stuff full of-
Tory Merritt: Full of junk.
Steve Lindstrom: … Grease and stuff, sitting there.
Tory Merritt: Okay.
Steve Lindstrom: Again, to go to Guy’s point about it, it’s like this desire to fill the space.
Tory Merritt: Not a lot of sustenance just-
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. It’s not good.
Guy Bauer: I think it’s also human nature’s desire to be part of something. I think that’s why meme culture explodes because someone makes a video of, on TikTok, of Old Town Road, turning into cowboys or whatever. Someone sees that and then they want to make a video with their friends. Right?
Steve Lindstrom: Right.
Guy Bauer: That’s how a meme starts. A meme starts because you see the vessel that someone has made, the format for, a kind of art in a way to express yourself and people want to do it themselves. And I think with words, the problem is though is that words are not memes. So just because right now “impactful” is a key word that’s in every speech, in every keynote that I see in all these conferences. Just because someone smarter is using “impactful” doesn’t mean that you should. But it’s almost like we feel that we’re not smart if we don’t use it.
Steve Lindstrom: Well, I think at the very core of this, like if you want to get like this is where …
Guy Bauer: Let’s get deep.
Steve Lindstrom: Okay. It’s late at night. I think this is really goes all the way back to the very beginning of human history and what it means to be human in a sense. And Yahweh, his statement or whatever the statement that the Jewish people brought to the world is that I AM the WORD, I got. That was a really radical moment where basically the primitive ideology, which was around symbols and around the eagle, the ocean, the mountain essentially the whole notion of the primitive iconography was replaced with the word.
Steve Lindstrom: The word is an argument. It’s a thing that is essentially invisible. Right? Which is the equation of the invisible, the WORD and GOD was all sort of put together there and there’s this whole idea of is that what really makes us different? And there’s a long discussion and argument about that. All the big philosophers, it’s our ability to reason and our language separates us from the natural world and connects us to each other in a way that’s fundamentally different. And what we’ve been witnessing I think over the past half century for sure, I’m old now, it might be a century, but there’s sort of this battle going on between the image and the word and image is winning out. And here I am talking to the video guys, you know the image is winning out.
Steve Lindstrom: That’s what people pay you to create. But in a funny way, I think it’s important to stay back with the word and to not give in to this impulse to go immediately to the image. And for the most part these words that I see are words used as images.
Guy Bauer: Go for it. Let’s hear it.
Steve Lindstrom: Well, I mean you’ve got like the next level insight into let’s see, “lean in.” Oh my God, that is everywhere now. “Empower,” that “go to market,” “visibility into.” Most of mine are like kind of old because I’ve been out of that. I’m out of the … Oh, “disruption” and “disruptor,” “level sets,” that whole deal. There’s just all these kinds of “net net” phrases that people just reach for because they seem to have meaning built into them. And if you have enough of them and you float enough of those out, it’s going to take care of you.
Steve Lindstrom: You don’t really have to do the homework that Lincoln did or that Jobs does or that frankly, most really great advertisers do. Look at the ads that are out there. The more money that’s being spent, when it’s Wieden and Kennedy, when it’s Leo Burnett, there’s a real simplicity to the language and to the whole proposition. You can tell somebody what the ad’s about very quickly and very easily.
Guy Bauer: Yeah. So it’s almost I think the actionable insight here.
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. Let’s add this. Let’s partner on this.
Guy Bauer: Is I think to stop talking … what I’m hearing is to stop talking like a sausage. It’s almost like you have to start from zero every time. Try not to use words that shortcut. There’s no shortcuts. So get your thought, right?
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah.
Guy Bauer: And then try to articulate that thought using no-
Steve Lindstrom: As simply as possible.
Guy Bauer: As simply as possible using none of-
Steve Lindstrom: It’s so funny. I spent a lot of time at the last gig I was at writing creative briefs.
Tory Merritt: Yep.
Steve Lindstrom: And frequently we would get like a rough draft in from the marketing people and they would be chock-full of these kinds of phrases and we want to reach out and connect to the millennial generation and we want to rate experience above belongings, all this kind of stuff that you just see over and over.
Guy Bauer: It’s white noise because if you see it by definition over and over, it does become noise.
Steve Lindstrom: Nobody cares. Nobody’s going to hear any of it. Yeah.
Guy Bauer: Right, right. You put more pressure on your audience by using these words because what they have to do is engage their brain to filter out the noise and then look at the few words you’ve given them.
Steve Lindstrom: They just fall asleep immediately. You know what I mean? That’s what I do. When somebody starts throwing out these clusters, and I’m at a business meeting or something like that, that’s when the Facebook comes up on the laptop and it’s like, “See ya.”
Guy Bauer: There’s a great Weird Al song. I’m a Weird Al fan. I cherish his entire collection.
Steve Lindstrom: Somebody has to do it.
Guy Bauer: Actually went to a Weird Al-
Steve Lindstrom: There’s got to be some people out there.
Guy Bauer: No, I sat front row at a Weird Al concert and my friends were with me and they were making fun of me the whole time because I knew every song. Anyway, there’s a Weird Al song called “Mission Statement” and it’s a parody to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, CSNY song.
Steve Lindstrom: Teach your children well or which one?
Guy Bauer: No, it’s the … how does it go? Whatever. Anyway, so there’s, and we’ll put the video on the show notes. I’m about to get the hook here. We’ll put the video on the show notes. But the entire song is a bunch of nonsense, corporate statements strung up together. But when you hear this song, you’ve heard this mission statement-
Steve Lindstrom: You’ve heard it all before.
Guy Bauer: … A million times before, but when you take a step back and kind of like look at the macro statement of what’s being said, absolutely nothing. Zero is being said.
Steve Lindstrom: There’s also a guy out there that does a TED Talk that’s basically empty and it’s just all of the TED Talk motion and memes and the way that stuff is done. I want to come back to the brief thing though. I left that off. We would get that stuff and I would always just tell people, I would always get back to them and say like, “Can you just tell me as plainly as possible what it is that you’re trying to say and what you’re trying to accomplish? Just tell me on the phone or write it down in as few words as possible or whatever.” And invariably people would give you something, “I get it. That’s great. Now I’ve got something I can work with.” And it’s kind of, I guess in the context of our discussion today, it’s sort of the Gettysburg address exercise. How simple can you make this? How flat-footed can you say this?
Tory Merritt: Yeah, I guess that’s my question is that from the account perspective in my day to day, there are certain buzzwords that if you don’t mention them, people will feel like you’re not getting it or you’re not getting their brand, you don’t understand, like you said, you’re not in the club. So how can [you] as a marketer avoid using those words, what can I do to make sure that I’m still connecting with my audience in a way that’s meaningful and has context without throwing out buzzwords?
Steve Lindstrom: Yeah. I think, well first of all there’s two directions in the connection. One is to talk back to your client. And my theory is that for the most part they’re the ones that are wanting to hear those buzzwords and sometimes it’s just-
Tory Merritt: So more have a discussion versus talking back.
Steve Lindstrom: You have to talk to people. Yeah. You have to let them know. There’s a great line or joke that our good account manager told me about what happens when creators give up because the insistence from the client is so intense. I’m like, “I want it to be this way. I want it to say this.” When that happens, she says, “Usually your strategy is showing and that’s a thing they want to avoid have happen.” Right? You want the discussion to seem to flow organically.
Steve Lindstrom: You don’t want it to show the bones of the strategy. And I think that’s a good way to talk back to clients and say, “Look, I can just lay these things out for you if you want, but that’s not what you hired me for.” But the other bit that always shows up in my mind that is a major consideration since we’re kind of talking about the briefing and the back and forth between the client is just how much do you want say, how much are you trying to get across? And in general, I think that the brands tend to want to have too much. They’re just trying to carry too much freight. I don’t know if you guys have had this where like we’ve got a 30 second video and we want to get these nine points across. It’s not going to happen. I mean, unless you want us to read them off. And nobody’s going to want to see that, nobody is going to engage with that.
Steve Lindstrom: And I think that’s a major sort of procedural problem that a lot of brands run into where the creative brief, the creation of the video, the creation of the ad is a big deal. And you get higher-ups involved that are typically not involved in fashioning messages or looking at creative and you get a bigger group of people together. And the easiest way to manage that process and that need is to just add more things to the list. And that’s a fatal problem. I think what you’re really doing, what brands really tend to be doing there, is like they’re interceding themselves between the creative and the audience. And as much as possible a brand should work to sit behind the creative and let the creative really connect with their audience because that’s the vital connection they have to have.
Guy Bauer: Pull a Steve Jobs and basically use, instead of trying to make the words the ideas, instead use your words to build one idea instead of having multiple ideas trying to embed it in these sausage words.
Steve Lindstrom: For brands, I think, I’m kind of talking about the creative development process here, I tend to fixate on it, but for brands you’re building a frame for a creative entity to connect with their audience. And when there’s an insistence on certain corporate phrasing and stuff like that, it’s just going to falsify that connection.
Tory Merritt: So we talked about avoiding using empty language, using filler language. So we talked about also it can be uncomfortable to not use those words and not use buzzwords when you expect an audience, especially an internal audience. They’re sitting there looking for them. Well did you use this word? Did you use that word like I told you? These are our keywords for our brand. So if you’re in that position, Steve, how can you approach selling someone on like simplifying the language and making it more of a … I don’t want to say more of a conversation because that’s a buzzword there too. But making it more simple, actually talking to someone versus just throwing out buzzwords hoping that they land.
Steve Lindstrom: Well, I think that again, the recommendation I already have is to try to express what it is that you are saying as simply as possible. And I think the best technique for doing that is to simply talk and record. If you want it to have a record of it, record what somebody says. I use that as a creative all the time. What is it you’re really trying to say here? And usually the sentences that come out immediately in an informal sort of setting like that will express the thing that you’re trying to get at perfectly well.
Steve Lindstrom: If you’re actually looking at writing, if you’re in the trade or or whatever, there’s all kinds of tools for simplifying writing these days. I mean, the Hemingway app is fantastic.
Guy Bauer: I love that. You turned me onto that thing. I love that.
Steve Lindstrom: No, it’s great.
Guy Bauer: It’s totally free too.
Steve Lindstrom: It’s free and it does a great job of cutting to the chase. I think gives Hemingway a little more credit than he’s got too but that’s a discussion for another day.
Steve Lindstrom: And I guess another thing that, another theme that kind of runs through some of the stuff that I’ve talked about here is exposing the stuff that you’re creating to a broader group. One of the great values that I saw working in a crowdsourced situation was that we had a bigger group of people sort of look at ideas and try to generate ideas and filter ideas and edit ideas. One of the things that you want to do is kind of have a test-
Tory Merritt: Focus group or …
Steve Lindstrom: Well, whether it’s focus groups or just people within your own shop. A lot of the sausage language and another reason sausage is a good word for it is it’s because it’s male-dominated. There’s this sort of feeling of physical action. And if you think about some of the stuff like the open the kimonos-
Guy Bauer: I hate that.
Steve Lindstrom: … And all the military phrases and stuff that is used frequently in presentations. If you have more women, if you have younger people rather than older people, people that aren’t in the C suite-
Tory Merritt: Different backgrounds.
Steve Lindstrom: … Looking at the copy and allow them to have something to say about it and encourage people. Create an environment where people can have their say and give you their take. I think that you’re going to stand a better chance of not putting yourself in the position of apologizing the day after the Super Bowl.
Tory Merritt: We’ve experienced just having somebody else take a look at something. I don’t have the experiences that they have. They brought something I would never have thought that. We definitely should modify that. Just having those different perspectives on something even specific as not even the visuals, but like you said, the language or the way that it’s used has been huge for us as well.
Steve Lindstrom: Right. And the more technical or detailed of the culture that you’re operating in, the more important it is to get the voice of people that are on the floor or people that are actually experienced with whatever it is that you’re talking about.
Steve Lindstrom: Focus groups are interesting. I think they’re fun social sort of phenomenon to watch, but one of the things that I would recommend for anybody pursuing focus groups, especially looking at copy or concepts, get a focus group person who is going to be tough on you and somebody that will represent the people that are being brought into the room. I’ve been in many, many focus group session where basically what starts to happen is a hunt to find the person that agrees with what we thought coming in. And the only way to prevent that from happening is having the people who are running the research show and the focus group moderator lay down the law on how the conversation will take place.
Tory Merritt: Yeah. So it’s actually objective versus just kind of that cognitive dissonance or trying to just find something that agrees with you.
Steve Lindstrom: You’ve been to focus groups, right? The first thing that people do is they start sort of caricaturing the people that are on the other side of the glass. They tell little stories about them. They sort of like, you know, there’s a little condescending going on there-
Tory Merritt: They’re trying to create audience personas for real people.
Steve Lindstrom: Right, right. Exactly. And it’s like if you have really, really good research as a really good focus group consultants actually they’re going to enable and amplify the stuff that’s coming from the real people especially you’re looking at a tagline or something like that. You want to hear the one guy that goes, “That struck me as this…” That’s what you’re paying all the money for.
Guy Bauer: Yeah. Cool. Awesome. Well, Steve, thank you. If I can summarize this, I’m going to do a poor job of summarizing the key takeaways. But I think the biggest takeaway I see is force yourself or your team or whoever’s writing to explain the idea in the simplest language possible.
Tory Merritt: Talk to people like they’re people. You always say your clients don’t wear their suits to bed or what’s the phrase you use?
Guy Bauer: Yeah. My whole thing is that customers don’t wear their suits to bed.
Steve Lindstrom: I am wearing my suit to bed though.
Tory Merritt: Long night.
Steve Lindstrom: That’s a different…
Guy Bauer: That’s a different podcast. But yeah, clients don’t wear their suits to bed. So just because we use words like “disparate,” whatever and all the language doesn’t mean that that’s how people really want to be spoken to. And really it sounds to me that sausage words are just white noise. So you’re doing yourself and your brand a disservice by using them.
Steve Lindstrom: And one last thing I would say is just consider the copywriter’s role not so much as a polishing or decoration exercise. What you really want to try to do is find people who are crafting your story and the plot line and the arc. It’s an architectural exercise more than it is painting and gloss and finishing work.
Tory Merritt: It’s not paint by numbers.
Steve Lindstrom: Absolutely.
Guy Bauer: Cool. Well, thank you. This has been a very philosophical episode of So You Need A Video.
Tory Merritt: Those are my favorite.
Guy Bauer: Thank you for listening to So You Need A Video. For more information and links to any videos, the Weird Al video in particular we talked about in this episode, visit our website at umault.com, that’s U-M-A-U-L-T.com. And if you liked what you heard today, please subscribe and leave us a review on your podcast app of choice. Thanks, Steve. Thanks, Tory.
Tory Merritt: Thanks, Guy.
Guy Bauer: Thank you, guys.