Putting Words to Work: Use (or Avoid) Language Subtleties to Reach Your Audience

Estimated reading time: 14 minute(s)

copywriting language subtleties
Different words mean different things to different people. Make sure you’re choosing the right ones.

Picture this: you get into Boston, go into a cafe, and order a frappé. Ah, you think, iced coffee will be just the thing to cool me down and wake me up. Your waiter comes over. He hands you a milkshake.

If only you’d known that in Boston, “frappe” means “milkshake,” you could easily have averted this crisis

Or picture this, you’re in the Midwest, and you ask for a mango. Instead of a sweet, yellow fruit, you find yourself holding a green bell pepper.

You probably already knew that words and phrases can mean different things in other countries. But you may not have realized that one word can mean something completely different just a few miles across the state line.

If you need another example, consider that carbonated drink that comes in an aluminum container. Is it pop? Soda? Coke? Yes, yes, and yes. It simply depends on which region of the U.S. you hail from.

The surprising amount of language differences across states should tell you something: language is highly specific. For a copywriter, that can be both a blessing and a curse.

Inclusive vs. exclusive

Sometimes, using a certain lingo can help you better connect to your audience. If you’re a company that offers a very specific service, like financial counseling for retirees in Florida, you don’t need to appeal to a wide demographic. Sure, you probably want to keep your copy gender neutral, but you don’t need to worry about catering to a younger audience, or to a nation-wide audience.

If your audience is narrow, you can play that as a strength: use certain words and phrasing to make them feel like they’re reading about themselves. For this example, think sunshine, beaches, biking, grandkids, and whatever else comes with retirement in Florida.

On the other hand, if you’re writing for an audience of internet-savvy, pop-culture obsessed millennials, you’re clearly going to use different phrasing.

If you’re not sure what kind of language to use, you can always look at forums, social media sites, magazines, and blog posts dedicated to your target audience.

Other times, you’re writing for as wide an audience as possible. Maybe you’re a chain restaurant trying to attract new customers. Or maybe you’re a healthcare company that services a number of different states. When you’re writing copy for anyone and everyone, things can get tricky. You’ll want to avoid jargon of any kind, be choosy about your pronouns, and use clear, simple language.

Whether you’re writing for a wide or narrow audience, here are a few types of words to watch your usage of.

Pronouns

Are you writing for men? Women? Trans people? All of the above? Then watch out for gendered pronouns. A long time ago, writers could get away with saying “he” and “his” whenever they needed a pronoun. No longer.

You can use second person pronouns (“you”), or slip in a “they” if you want to get around the issue of gender altogether. Some writers prefer to alternate the types of pronouns they use. On the other hand, if you’re writing specifically for women, you have a good reason for sticking to one set of pronouns.

Acronyms

BTW, if you’re writing for an audience of teens or young adults, feel free to scatter in some LOLs, TMIs, OMGs, JKs, etc. You get the idea.

If you’re writing for a professional medical audience, you might be OK using acronyms like CDC (Center of Disease Control), IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), or FDA (Food and Drug Administration).

But if you’re writing for a wide audience, leave the acronyms out. When a reader sees an acronym they don’t understand, it sends a clear signal: this piece wasn’t written with you in mind.

Slang

Imagine the reaction you’d get from a millennial if you used the word “groovy” in your copy. Right away, they’d label you as outdated. Or, think of the effect a word like “bruh” or “lit” would have on an older audience. (Hint: none, because they probably aren’t versed in 2018 teen slang.)

When your audience is narrow, you may be able to use slang to personalize the content for them. Just make sure you’re using slang terms correctly, and that the words you think are now in vogue really are. Otherwise, it can backfire.

Jargon

In general, you want to limit jargon. But there are times when it can help you connect with your audience.

For example, if you’re writing for an audience of medical practitioners, it may be appropriate to use technical terms that a layman wouldn’t understand. But if you’re writing for healthcare patients, you definitely don’t want to throw around medical jargon.

Similarly, if you’re writing for tech people or coders, you can use certain terms that would seem foreign to most of us (fall stack, C#, dev ops, etc.). That tells your audience that you speak their language, and develops trust.

Words are tricky things, but when you understand how they work, you can use them to connect with your audience in stronger, deeper ways. We could all use the reminder that language is subjective. And if you ever visit Boston, you might need to know that a frappe is a milkshake.

Need some help ironing out those tricky words? At Marketsmiths, we pride ourselves on our ability to write for a number of different audiences. Contact us today and we’ll put words to work for you.

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Erin Kahn

Erin pursued the written word in college because it seemed like the only natural thing to do. Now, as a copywriter, arts critic, and fiction author in New York City, she’s pretty sure she made the right choice. When she’s not crafting a brand article, legal blog post, or Off-Broadway review, Erin can usually be found working furiously on her latest book idea – at all hours of the night!

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