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What the Heck Are You Selling?

A blog reader wrote to me this morning, baffled by a business email she had received. It was so filled with jargon that she–and I–could not tell what the heck the writer was selling.

Here are a few of the thick terms the writer tossed into a 200-word email that was supposed to be persuasive:

  • Whitespace opportunity identification
  • Transaction opportunity identification
  • Disruptive ideation methodologies
  • Highly differentiated company
  • Market adjacency mapping
  • Creation and validation of radical innovation
  • Key innovation leader studies
  • Intersect the dynamics of

Rather than meeting the reader's needs, the email mystified her. And she is a communications specialist at an engineering firm, not an intellectual slouch. 

Also, she felt irritated that among all his details, the writer mentioned nothing about engineering or about her firm. When he requested a phone meeting ("a phone capabilities presentation"), she had no interest in saying yes.

The email writer happened to mention that his company leaders were scientists, PhDs, and MDs. But despite their brilliance and advanced degrees, when he and they communicate with clients or potential clients, they must speak the clients' language. They must describe how they can help meet the clients' goals in the clients' industries, not how they can "create and validate radical innovation."

Whenever you want to sell an idea, service, or product, remember that your readers want to know what you are selling–in plain language that meets their needs.

Do you receive messages like the one described? How do feel about them?

Syntax Training


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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.

12 comments on “What the Heck Are You Selling?”

  • Vicky, that Gobbledygook generator is perfect. Thanks for the laugh.

    I believe what shocked me and my reader was that someone is STILL writing that way, despite how often jargon has been lampooned and how much “plain talk” has been promoted. I actually said “Oh my God” as I read the email, and OMG is a rare reaction from me in response to someone’s writing.

    Thanks for stopping by.


  • I once had a supervisor who spoke that way. We never really knew what he was asking us to do. Looking back, I should have stepped up to the plate to put my irons in the fire so I could implement bandwidth within his paradigm.

  • This reminded me that I often feel overwhelmed by jargon when I read resumes. I know that applicants are trying to say a lot in a short space, but it can become so dense it’s overwhelming and causes me to tune out any wording I am not immediately familiar with.

    I’m not sure why, but it seems like readers need some filler space in between important key words and heavy jargon. Whenever I see a group of important key words or jargon all together, I am suddenly incapable of making sense of any of the words. It’s as if none of the key words mean anything to me anymore!

  • Katherine, I have had the same experience with resumes that you have had, and I agree with you about the need for filler words.

    I remember once telling an excellent writer that I couldn’t understand what she was saying in her resume because the writing was SO tight. Readers need prepositions, articles, and a few simple words to relieve the density you mentioned, especially when industry jargon comes up.

    Thanks for the great point.


  • I really think such kinds of language is used by the email writer when he wants to emphasize on the technical specialization of his firm, which may be very necessary in some cases. Can you please help on how to use language in such a case ?

  • It’s a real problem if you’re writing to customers using terms that only people in your own company understand. If your marketing email confuses the reader, you’ve lost a sale.

    I have to say “phone capabilities presentation” is one of the worst phrases I’ve ever seen for “phone call” but nothing beats “market adjacency mapping” which is completely incomprehensible. I feel very sorry for your reader, Lynn.

    For anyone looking for a decent jargon generator, can I recommend the Clarity Jargon-o-Matic found here:

  • Hi, Will. I agree with you about the mind-boggling “phone capabilities presentation.” What was the writer thinking?

    Thanks for sharing your Jargon-o-Matic machine. I hope no one uses it to churn out a report!


  • Great post, Lyn. Funny yet insightful. I agree with what you said about speaking the client’s language.

    I used to coach a team of technical support engineers and the biggest challenge for us back then was to get them to give out clear and logical instructions that even a ten year old could understand. Turns out our definition of “clear” and “logical” were very different.

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