To celebrate National Storytelling Week, corporate and brand storytellers Insight Agents commissioned Sussex University’s Innovation Centre to interview senior figures in the UK retail sector to tell us the challenges they face in telling their brand stories. Today Sam Knowles, our Founder & MD, takes a personal look at jargon – and argues that brands should avoid it at all costs.
For 12 years after graduation, I worked in public relations. Each industry I supported had its own jargon, but thanks to a boss-cum-mentor who’d been the news editor of Farmers Weekly, I worked hard to ensure my prose was simple and jargon-free. Whether I was working for the drinks industry, Big Pharma, insurance or legal services.
In 2000, I went back to school to study for a Masters and then to research for a Doctorate in psychology. I soon became frustrated by the jargon I had to cut through to understand the areas I was interested in – addiction, memory and mood. Paper after thesis after presentation was steeped in jargon so deep I concluded the authors didn’t want me to grasp what they had found. Everyone seemed to take it as a badge of honour to use language that excluded outsiders, piling up Latinate, technical terms rather than the earthy Anglo-Saxon I’d come to value so highly.
After a couple of years, I worked out why. Rather than showing off learning or knowledge, I saw that they were trying to confuse their audience and gloss over the fact that their experiments weren’t producing the expected results. They coined new terms to cover up the shortcomings of their research. And worst of all, to keep others out who weren’t part of their club, their niche.
When I went back into commercial communications, I vowed to take three things with me from academia: an ability to read, understand and communicate simply what a research paper really means; a facility with statistics, which has since evolved into data-driven storytelling; and a total rejection of jargon wherever possible: jargon – the smokescreen of the insecure.
The research we’ve commissioned at Insight Agents for National Storytelling Week, among the brand storytellers of Britain’s retailers, reveals a similar distaste for jargon. But it also identifies a very real sense that corporate structures often make jargon inevitable. Modern business is increasingly complicated and technical, and innovations to shout about are often about the marginal gains added in the lab or by finance. And those who generate really meaningful innovations often don’t want their advances dumbed down or explained away in simple terms.
So marketing and comms folk, whose job it is to tell their corporations’ stories, are often prevented from getting to the simple truth of what’s new. As a result, too often the advances companies make lay buried beneath a mountain of jargon. They fail to have the galvanic impact they could on corporate reputation and performance. Counterintuitively – our University of Sussex researchers found – the more complex and technical a business is, the more prepared R&D are to allow a straightforward story to be told.
Kathy Klotz-Guest is a marketing storyteller and founder of Keeping It Human, a firm whose mission is to help companies turn marketing-speak into compelling, authentic human stories for customers and employees act on. Sound familiar? Kathy’s coined the brilliant phrase “jargon monoxide”, reasoning: “Jargon is more than just lazy; it’s marketing air pollution.” Never afraid to call it how it is, advertising guru David Ogilvy famously said: “Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”
I finished and presented my doctoral research in a month under three years, and its key finding was this: people binge repeatedly on booze because they fail to learn from the bad things that happen to them when they get drunk. Quite simple, no?
As a storyteller, the best moment of my viva defence – and perhaps the highpoint of my Ph.D – was when my two examiners said: “Before we start, can we congratulate you on the most jargon-free thesis we’ve ever read?” Over a drink to celebrate, they reckoned they’d examined 120 doctoral theses between them. I’m not claiming it’s a page-turner, but I’m delighted it was relatively jargon-free. And therefore a good read.
Some of those marketers our Sussex researchers spoke to in our National Storytelling Week research said they used jargon in order to demonstrate their expertise and develop trust with consumers. Former president of Yale Kingman Brewster, Junior, said that: “Incomprehensible jargon is the hallmark of a profession”. Experience says this is true, but we also know that while jargon may demonstrate expertise, it erodes trust in brand storytelling. And that’s why we always urge our clients to leave it in the lab.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.