MESH Interactive Agency Blog

Clever Proof Your Copy: How to Write Understandable Copy

Make your copy understandable to all, not just the few who “get it.”

“Clever” has many definitions. One such definition of “clever” is, according to Google, “showing intelligence or skill.”

Just because your copy can have layers of meaning to it doesn’t mean that the copy should try to be clever. Since the beginning of modern advertising copy, going all the way back to Claude Hopkins, there has been a push to avoid copy that tries to entertain the reader.

In fact, Hopkins once remarked in Scientific Advertising that

“[Clever copy] is one of the greatest advertising faults. Ad writers abandon their parts. They forget that they are salesmen and try to be performers. Instead of sales, they seek applause.”

Fast-forward a generation and a successor to Hopkins, David Ogilvy, felt the same way. In Confessions of an Advertising Man, Ogilvy bluntly said, “If it doesn’t sell, it isn’t creative.” This was reflective of his overall attitude of the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

Cannes is a gathering of advertising professionals that honors attendees for creativity. Although, the copywriting masters would’ve frowned at award-winning copy, awards in and of themselves can act as social proof.

Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy

And while social proof is one way to sell a product or service, it can also be a measure of success—that a product or service does what it claims. Here, when I mention “social proof,” I mean it in a way that the award is providing recognition. If your copy wins awards, you must be doing something right–the ad has to have done something special to earn recognition.

By and large, though, ads that win awards are traditionally thought not to sell. Remember, the customer wants revenue, not fans.

So, you need copy that has layers of meaning to it. But when crafting copy that has those layers, you need to be careful it’s not trying to be clever.

Say No to Jargon

You’ve got your fresh idea. Now you’ve got to communicate it. To save time, you might rely on jargon–complex language exclusive to industry insiders. The logic here is that you’re saving time by not wasting additional words on explanation.

Whose time are you actually saving, though? Yours or your customer’s? Keep in mind that your customers may not be marketers themselves. And the use of jargon wouldn’t seem like you’re actually trying to be clever, but you are.

Josh Bernoff's book Writing Without Bullshit

This leads to a dark place for all copy—the use of jargon and marketing buzzwords. Josh Bernoff, author of Writing Without Bullshit, explains why jargon is a problem for you.

It’s not because you don’t understand it, it’s because the people who aren’t part of the select group of people who do understand it don’t:

The problem is that when you write in jargon, you effectively divide the world into two groups. One is the insider group—the people, along with you, know what these special words mean. The other, much larger, group is the world outside of your bubble. That other group includes most of your customers and many of your employees. The more jargon you use, the more you are alienating large groups of people who should be understanding what you write… they don’t know your secret code.

And making people feel like the other, or less than, is just not cool.

But if you have to use it, make sure the jargon makes sense.

How so? Read on…

Using Jargon the Right Way

The use of jargon is not automatically disqualifying. Sometimes it can be used to show authority. But only if you explain its meaning for your readers.

For example, say you’re marketing medical devices. One of the golden rules of marketing is to write in the language of your customer.

This is true to a point.

Certainly, the medical profession operates according to a wide glossary of terms the average person likely isn’t familiar with. Here, if you simplify the complex information by using jargon to introduce a concept, product or procedure, clarify it with a simple definition.

For example, if you’re writing a description of a company specializing in the treatment of traumatic brain injury, write “[Medical Device X] specializes in diffuse axonal frontal lobe traumatic brain injury (damage to both sides of the brain around the forehead).”

Again, use the technical term, followed by a simple explanation. It shows authority and it shows that you’re not assuming everybody will automatically understand.

Many marketers rely on jargon with no explanation. Don’t be one of them. Be clear and connect with your audience.

Context Works Wonders

Another way to “clever-proof” your copy is to contextualize it.

To illustrate, let’s return to the medical device specializing in brain injury example. You’ve clarified the example for the reader. You’ve told them what the image is (damage to both sides of the brain around the forehead).

But just because they know what that language stands for doesn’t mean they can readily picture it.

Using the mede device example, they may have a picture of a hospital in mind. But they may have no clue what diffuse axonal frontal lobe traumatic brain injury is. Sure, you’ve told them what it is, but you haven’t explained it in common terms. In other words, you haven’t contextualized the language.

[Medical Device X] specializes in diffuse axonal frontal lobe traumatic brain injury (damage to both sides of the brain around the forehead). If your brain broke both legs, it would go here for treatment.

See what I did there? I took the technical part of the language (diffuse axonal frontal lobe traumatic brain injury), and, after explaining what that language meant, I made it easier to picture. Widespread frontal lobe brain damage can affect both physical mobility (left leg) and mental agility (right leg).

via GIPHY

Refer to these resources for additional copywriting practices that help avoid jargon and add context for readers.

In summary, don’t try to be clever by using big and technical words. If you have to use them, at the very least, define them. Be confident your readers know what you’re talking about and can visualize it. This way, your copy can be read without Google’s help.

What have been your experiences with jargon? In the chat below tell us what best practices you use to make sure customers understand your copy.

Jayme Severance

As the Junior Copywriter at MESH, Jayme brings a quality craftsmanship and artistry to assignments he creates, as well as a bit of motion to the office as a freestyle dancer.

Marketing Agency

MESH is a digital marketing agency that has pioneered Account-Based Marketing via our proprietary Outcome Driven Marketing (ODM) methodology. We keep our focus on tightly integrating (or MESHing) lead generation, inbound, and outbound methodologies. We help you understand the hidden levers that impact your customers’ buying decision process, develop the right marketing strategy for your unique business case, and effectively execute and measure all aspects of your Account-Based Marketing program.