Choose Customer Words, Not Organization Words

    May 22, 2006

An organizational structure that may work very well for your internal needs may not work at all well for your customers. Here’s why.

I do a lot of presentations. When I’m working on a presentation, I usually name the file with the name of the organization I’m preparing the presentation for. Recently, I did a presentation for Cisco. So I called the presentation “Cisco”.

That works fine for me. I can quickly scan my Presentations folder and identify the particular one I need. However, when I send the presentation to an organization such as Cisco, the file name “Cisco” isn’t very useful, is it? Cisco probably needs to rename it something like: “Gerry McGovern”.

When you’re trying to find the right words, you need to have a clear idea of two key things. Who is the primary audience? In what context are they going to be reading these words?

Most organizational communication is written to go out. (Yes, there is internal communication that is meant for staff. I’ll address that a little later.) When we’re talking to the customer, we write communication from the perspective that they will see it in a store, at a tradeshow, in a newspaper, or on TV.

Your public website is focused on your customers-or should be. However, it exists in an internal context. Your content is sitting on your own website, not in someone else’s newspaper or other external media. You have invited your customers in. There is a major difference between writing content that will go out and content that stays in. A good example is a press release.

Every time I see press releases published on a homepage, I want to hit the Back button. Press releases are written to go out. They begin something like, “XYZ Corporation is pleased to announce the launch of …”

On a website, those nine words are useless. They get in the way. You don’t need to be told it’s XYZ Corporation because you’re already on the website of XYZ Corporation. Study after study shows that the beginning of the heading/sentence is critical to keeping web readers engaged. Telling people something they already know-insulting their intelligence and wasting their precious time-that’s a guaranteed way to lose them.

Never, ever start a sentence or heading on your website with the name of your organization. Kill all redundant phrases such as “are pleased to announce”. Cut the self-congratulatory waffle. You’re not a monarchy and the Web is certainly not the nirvana for vanity publishers. Lead with the need. Get to the point.

Acronyms proliferate on some intranets. Like rampant weeds they choke clear and compelling communication. It is assumed that everyone knows these acronyms, but I have found that the majority of acronyms and jargon words are understood only by select groups.

It can make a lot of sense for an internal group to speak in code. It speeds communication and makes the group feel special and exclusive. A key purpose of intranets is to break down silos and share knowledge. Publishing jargon-filled language is not the way to achieve such an objective.

Stop. Think. Who are you publishing for and where will they read this? Use their language, their words, understand their context. Otherwise, you may end up publishing for yourself. And nobody reads you.

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