Greek to Me: The Importance of Communicating Clearly to Your Customers


I worked for a guy years ago in New York who wanted to get the U.S. film rights to the Swedish character Pippi Longstocking. So he tracked down the author’s representatives in Sweden, got their telephone number, and picked up the phone.

When someone answered on the other end, that person spoke, well... Swedish – something that my boss didn’t seem to anticipate. Yet, rather than conclude that he needed to get a translator and call back, he kept repeating himself... at an ever-increasing volume.

Needless to say, that didn’t help.

Awhile later, I was told that the Finnish language version of a film he’d produced was out of synch. Somewhere around the middle of the film, the narration and the picture no longer matched.

When I asked how the person who gave me that information knew it, he said that it was feedback from someone in Finland.

So I, too, picked up the phone and called... the Finnish embassy in New York. I then persuaded the bi-lingual receptionist to swing by on her lunch hour and earn an easy $50 by telling me where the words and picture stopped making sense. In under an hour, the problem was solved.

The Buyers’ Terms

Why is it, then, that too many companies that use English to communicate with English-speaking prospects and customers suffer from a “failure to communicate,” as Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke? What persuades the marketers in those companies to invent terminology that only they understand...and then use it to describe product or service capabilities that are completely unfamiliar?

To use a consumer example, there’s Porsche. After naming a car Boxster (which sounds like something said by Sylvester the Cat in “Loony Tunes” cartoons), it went on to call another Panamera, which challenged everyone to figure out how to pronounce it properly. On the B2B side, a software firm named its products using a series of initials that were never explained and, even when they were, made no sense to the people in the buying cycle – the purchase initiator, researcher, evaluator, influencer, recommender, shortlister, decision maker, and check signer – whose input determined what was bought.

Content’s Context

In The Content Era (which used to be The Collateral Era and, before that, The Sales Aid Era and, before that...), two things have to happen in every form of marketing communication and sales interaction. First, the information has to be targeted to the likely/intended reader. It has to address that person’s concerns, answer their probable questions, and overcome their potential objections. It has to “speak to” things that matter to them.

But what’s even more important is that it has to be written using terms and phrases that the reader already understands. “Horizontally opposed” will make sense to the mechanics and “car guys” (or gals) – the evaluators and recommenders responsible for operation and maintenance – but “an engine that saves space and improves handling and power” will make more sense to the buyer who’s shortlisting or ready to make a choice.

Of course, English owes its phenomenal power to the hundreds of thousands of words it has borrowed from other languages. Yet when you’re trying to convince people to buy things, talk to them in the version of English-as-a-Known-Language that generates enthusiasm, instead of confusion.

About the author

Peter Altschuler's picture

BlueSteps Executive Guest Writer

Peter Altschuler has been making products and services irresistible for more than a generation in a career that extends from high technology to television production.

He’s currently the chief marketing and creative strategist at Wordsworth & Company and has served as a Group Creative Director at San Francisco ad agency Anderson & Lembke, run the in-house agency at Candle Corp (now part of IBM) and, earlier, worked in television, producing for ABC News, Sesame Workshop, The Food Network, and PBS.
In his spare time, he brings books to life — most recently narrating Getting Religion by former Newsweek religion editor Kenneth Woodward and Creativity, Inc. by Pixar founder Ed Catmull — and performs in everything from Shakespeare to commercials.

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