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Phishing or Fishing? Speak Your Reader’s Language

Podcasting, adware, RSS feeds, firewall–these terms are all commonly found in blogs, on high-tech web sites, in consumer-focused articles, and in PowerPoint presentations across the globe.

But do readers know what these words mean? According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, many do not.

Here are some statistics gleaned from a U.S. nationwide survey of 1,336 adults, conducted by phone in May and June.

Percentage of people who responded that they “have a good idea what the term means”:

Spam – 88%
Firewall –  78%
Spyware – 78%
Internet cookies – 68%
Adware – 52%
Internet “phishing” – 29%
Podcasting – 13%
RSS feeds – 9%

Not surprisingly, significant differences in levels of awareness were noted between men and women and between younger and older adults. For example, these groups have a good idea what the term adware means:

Men: 60%
Women: 44%
Age 18-29: 55%
Age 65+: 31%

Other responses for each item were “Not really sure what the term means” and “Never heard the term.”

What does this information tell us business writers? It’s the age-old advice: Know your audience. If your readers think “phishing” is something one does with a pole and some bait after having one beer too many, they are probably right! Be sure to speak their language.

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.