Category Archives: Strategic Communication

A Shot of Jargon

Is Jargon Like the Clink of a Glass or a Bad Taste in the Mouth?


What do these words mean to you?

If you’re like most people, maybe nothing.

If you’ve sampled this herbal liqueur, you might be repulsed.

If you’re in the bar business, you might be among colleagues.

I was introduced to Fernet by a friend in the hospitality industry. One night, after finishing a cocktail, he ordered shots of the dark, aromatic liquid for us and for our bartender. I was baffled (and a little put off) by the strange, indescribable flavor. But, once the empty glasses were down, it was clear that we’d struck a deeper rapport with our attending mixologist. I felt like I’d just been given guest privileges at a private club.

Fernet-Branca is an intensely flavorful amaro made from herbs, roots and spices. I’ve grown fond of its quirkiness and I find it to be a good palate cleanser. I also like their label artwork. But it’s not for everyone. I once ordered a round for a table of colleagues at a firm Christmas dinner. It was not well-received. 

I think Fernet’s limited (or, rather, selective) appeal is why it’s a popular form of the “bartender’s handshake,” a subtle, knowing gesture among those in the hospitality industry. It quietly but clearly says, We’re of a class. But it’s also why my proffer of Fernet to my coworkers didn’t go over so well. In addition to not liking the taste, which I expected, the gesture lacked any deeper meaning for them. Rather than a handshake, it came across like a prank. Same liquid, two very different reactions.

A wink and a nod.

In these ways, a shot of Fernet is a bit like workplace jargon. To those in the know, it speaks volumes quickly and efficiently. To those who aren’t in the know, it’s met with raised eyebrows, confusion and even disapproval. While a shot of Fernet might earn a friendly nod from my bartender, it produced pinched faces among my coworkers.

A dirty trick.

Generally, jargon is used as a pejorative term; it’s something to avoid. But I think there are types of jargon, and not all are bad. 

Good jargon signifies knowledge and experience. It can make communication between those in the know more efficient and more precise.

Bad jargon hinders understanding and can lull sender, receiver or both into a false sense of understanding. 

This Progressive Insurance ad has a little fun with industry jargon.

Sometimes, not even the person using the jargon knows what they’re really saying. This happens when clichés and other vapid words and phrases stand in for clearly formed thoughts. These idioms often start as precise technical terms or fresh metaphors. Because they work, more people start using them. Eventually, though, these terms fall into the lexicons of people who really only think they know the actual definitions. Through misuse and overuse, the meanings become muddied and the terms become stale. I have to be honest, I still don’t know what a “catbird seat” is and where that phrase comes from. (Well, I do now.)

For the person communicating, this kind of claptrap is pernicious. Avoiding it takes self-awareness, switching off the inner linguistic autopilot and communicating more deliberately. (Instead of “catbird seat,” why not just say, “we’re in an enviable position”? Unless, of course, you’re making an allusion to the James Thurber story.)

Other times, the speaker thinks the words they’re using are common parlance when, in fact, they are not. In HR, there are countless examples. Typically, these are technical terms, legalese, SPD-speak or the latest management buzzword. These words may seem fresh or precise to those in the know — and they probably are — but to people in other functions, they’re gobbledygook. Here’s a good test for this kind of jargon. Try using it in casual conversation with friends at the next happy hour. (SHRM mixers don’t count!)  If you wouldn’t use it with them, you should be careful about using it with employees. 

If clearly defined, generally understood and properly used, jargon can become more like a secret handshake at your workplace. If used carelessly, it can be as out-of-place as tipping your bartender with coinsurance.

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Get Time on Your Side

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

Four Ways to Maximize Time on Your Next Communication Project

“You can feel the industry-wide pinch on time and budgets. We saw a lot of ideas that could have been great with better execution.”

“With the speed of the industry, we can lose the craft of good storytelling and attention to detail.”

These are comments from two of the jurors who selected entries for the Communication Arts Advertising Annual 58. While the industry they’re referring to is the advertising industry, we’re seeing the same trend in internal communication. Projects are starting later, compressing timelines. Budgets, too, are shrinking as organizations try to do more with less.

It’s all understandable and not always a bad thing. Deadlines and budgets can force better decisions and maintain focus. And, besides, racing against time and having limited resources is all part of the creative challenge we communicators thrive on. As one of my heroes, Robert Frost, said about writing poetry without the self-imposed strictures of rhyme, meter or structure, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” 

Working without obstacles just isn’t as fun. But facing near-insurmountable obstacles increases stress and threatens quality. It can also diminish the creativity needed to help your message break through. 

Here are four ways you can increase the time available to work on your project, even if you can’t increase your budget. 

1. Don’t Wait to Engage Your Communication Team

We understand. You want to wait until you have everything figured out. You want your decisions approved, your strategy in place. But there’s a lot your communications team can be doing as your project takes shape. Every project requires discovery. We need to learn about you, your organization, your audience and your specific issues. We need to take in a lot of information before we can ever put out a first draft. Every project also needs some set up time. We need to assign a team and take care of a few administrative details. You never see these steps on a project schedule, but they still need to be done. Loop us in early and, when the iron is finally hot, we’ll be ready to strike.

2. Don’t Pay by the Hour

This will sound nearly blasphemous to many in the consulting industry. If you’re used to paying for consulting and creative services by the hour, you know what the underlying motivation of your partner is: Bill more hours. So, you may think that allowing less time to work on your project will help shave dollars off your bill. When we founded Smith more than a decade ago, we decided to bill flat rates. Quality, not time, is our focus. Our motivation is to understand your needs up front so that our final bills are in line with our initial statements of work. So, once you’re sure you’re going to need help with your project — even if you’re not exactly sure what your needs are — invite us to the table. Give us the opportunity to get to know you and prepare for what lies ahead.

3. Get Your Cowcatcher On

Ok, that metaphor is a bit folksy, but it’s a good one. Think about what could derail or delay your project at a critical moment. One of the more common hazards we see is a content reviewer who chimes in late. This is often a senior leader who doesn’t want to see things until all the kinks are worked out. We understand the logic, but the closer a deliverable gets to its final form, the longer it can take to make changes. While you don’t want your VPs wasting time on a draft that has too many holes in it, you also don’t want them to veto the talent in your video the day before your video was set to debut. (It happens.) Talk with us in advance about the process and the players so we can create realistic schedules and steps.

4. Don’t Hesitate to Run Something by Us

If you have an initiative in the offing, let’s chat, even if you’re not sure about where things are going. Let’s pick out some key considerations early. It could save precious time later.

I have a simple formula. Talent > Time. But with a good communication partner, you can get both on your side. 

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Can a Logo Make You Hungry?

Lessons learned from "America's Next Great Restaurant"…and Red Bull

Every time we’re asked to design a logo for a client, I’m reminded of something I saw on a now-cancelled NBC show, “America’s Next Great Restaurant.” In the episode, Steve Ells, celebrity judge and founder of Chipotle Mexican Grill, criticized a contestant’s logo, saying it didn’t make him hungry. 

The logo was for a concept called “Meltworks,” and featured a melting cog for the letter “O.” Ells said he “got it” and thought it was “kind of fun,” but advised the would-be restaurateur to “put something that represents food in the logo.”

Meltworks Facebook Page

As I considered this advice, I flipped through logos for well-known food purveryors: McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks, Ben & Jerry’s, TGI Friday’s … None of them feature an image of food in their logos. But, given their success, they must be making someone hungry.

Then, I looked up the logo for Ells’s Chipotle restaurant chain. It features a chili, which signifies food and even suggests a certain kind of food. But does it make me hungry? Better still, is it even possible for a logo to make someone hungry? According to a study involving the Red Bull logo, the answer may be yes.

Red Bull’s Logo Gives You Wings

In the experiment, subjects played a car-racing video game. Each time they played, the game was the same, but the logo on the car they controlled changed to that of a different famous beverage brand. When the car bore the Red Bull logo, researchers found that players drove faster and more recklessly. 

Other parts of the study confirmed that people associate “speed” with Red Bull more than any other attribute, and that they associate “speed” with Red Bull more than they do with any other brand. 

So, it is possible for a logo to elicit a visceral response, but Red Bull’s logo, which features two bulls face-to-face, doesn’t literally scream “speed” to me. Nor does McDonald’s logo literally say “eat here.”

Does a Logo Have to Be Literal?

These well-known logos get a response not because they look like what their owners sell, but because they have been carefully associated with what they represent through various forms of communication. 

For example, Red Bull sponsors a lot of sporting events. But you won’t see their logo at a bowling tournament or a figure skating contest. You’ll see it at the Ice Crash or the Flugtag. (Check out the opening scene from this video of Red Bull’s X-Fighters.) 

Seeing a visual mark in a certain context consistently over time creates the connection, not the image itself. It’s a bit like Pavlov’s famous experiment. The bell ringing didn’t make the dogs hungry until they knew they were going to get food right after hearing it. If Pavlov had merely been searching for a sound that makes dog’s hungry, his arms would have gotten really tired.

Ells may have had a point, though. Food is a basic human need, and an image of food does have inherent meaning. So, a chili or a hot dog might give passersby an important cue. But, like Pavlov’s bell, I don’t think a logo will make anyone hungry until after they learn what it means through some kind of experience.

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Just-in-Time Creativity

Two successful strategies

When being creative is your job

Where do those clever, innovative ideas you see in communications and marketing come from? How do people take flat and uninspiring content and spin it into something that captures our imagination and urges us to seek more information?

In my career, I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many exceptionally creative people. I‘ve observed and learned from them the best ways to unearth creative thinking. I have two favorite approaches … similar, but with important subtle differences.

Inside out

The first approach is what I call the Observe and Apply Technique, or OAT for short. Quite simply, OAT is a process of looking carefully at everything that is around us to find what is unique to your situation. Then OAT adapts an interesting concept to match your problem or issue.

Here’s an example of how OAT works: A client we were working with was having trouble getting employees to read the corporate newsletter. A study they had conducted showed employees were so disengaged that many literally dropped the publication in the trash before giving it even a cursory review. The client wondered if there was a way for us to have the printed piece stand out to grab the reader’s attention.

Our team took a few days to mull on the challenge. When we reconvened, one of the team members made this observation: 

“Our client is a white-collar business, and most of the employees sit in an office—offices have doors. This week when I was traveling it struck me that most of the doors on my hotel floor had Do Not Disturb signs on them. I thought, what a wonderful way to communicate. What if we took the newsletters, cut a slit in them, and then hung the newsletter on the doors of employees’ offices?  The cost to do this is pretty nominal and the impact is significant.”

This is a classic example of a person paying attention to the elements of a situation, finding something unique or intriguing that had previously been overlooked—everyone had an office—and then finding solutions that better match that problem. That’s inside-out creative thinking. 

Outside in

The other approach to creative ideas I have seen colleagues successfully use is what I call the Echo and Adapt Technique, or EAT. Here the individual echoes something he or she found compelling and applies it to his or her project. 

Here’s generally how it works: think about what you’ve seen over the past three or four days that caught your attention. Was it an image? Or maybe a video clip? What made that image or clip interesting? Once you answer this last question, think of how that element can be adapted to a communication piece you are crafting.

Here’s a real world example of EAT: Do you remember the water bucket challenge from a couple of years ago? And, more recently, the bottle cap removal challenge? The EAT approach taps those viral campaigns to create a “challenge” adapted especially for your communication problem. Your new communication need not be exactly like the original, it merely contains an echo/homage/memory of the original.

There are many tried and true methods and techniques used in business to help employees think creatively. These include formalized brainstorming sessions, retreats to clear your mind and spark innovation, and mixing teams with experienced and inexperienced skills to see what happens. For me, the idea of seeing what is right in front of you and putting it to work in your communication plan has always seemed to generate the most fascinating results.

I hope that you’ll use the OAT and EAT techniques to generate some innovative approaches of your own. 

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