Be understood II -

Be understood II

Earlier this year in this space (March 2005, p7) I railed against engineers who can't speak in complete sentences or make themselves understood to nontechnical colleagues. In the interest of fairness, this month I'll insult the other half of our readership, the sales and marketing people.

We ink-stained wretches in high-tech journalism get flooded with press releases and PowerPoint slides from sunup till sundown. Each new dawn brings breathless new press announcements, partnerships, and product previews. It's all part of the job; we throw ourselves on the grenade so you don't have to.

It appears that many folks in the marketing communications business have, ironically, lost the ability to communicate. Somewhere between their high school creative writing classes and their current jobs as copywriters, these people forgot how to form coherent English sentences. A large number of press releases and e-mail announcements are all but incomprehensible, defeating the entire purpose of the message. So as a public service, I'd like to recommend a few corrective measures to these well-intentioned but misguided souls.

• Stop talking like a politician or a bureaucrat. Long words and complex sentences don't convey your company's intention, they obscure it. The clearer the message, the greater the impression it will leave on soft journalistic minds.

• A solution is a solid dissolved in a liquid or a mathematical proof, not a catch-all term for any product or service. Avoid the urge to call everything a solution.

• A platform is a horizontal structure that supports weight, not a processor, operating system, or printed-circuit board.

• Don't assume anyone remembers your brand names. Some companies seem to invent new brand names every time an engineer sneezes. Resist this temptation. The fewer brands you have, the more powerful they become. The names don't mean anything to outsiders anyway.

• Don't invent new industry terms unnecessarily. Like brand names, new “standard” definitions are meaningless outside of your own clique. The more meaningless your words, the weaker your message.

• Impact is a noun, not a verb. So is address; so is target. A meteorite can make an impact on your office, but a new device driver can't impact performance. Don't even think about impactful.

• Functionality is pretentious and misused. Try features.

• Seamless is a word best used to describe quality sewing, not your latest software product.

• Methodology. The word you want is method. Also try process, technique, or procedure.

• Robust. What exactly is robust software? Is it healthy, strong, and vigorous? If you mean that the product is reliable, say so. Better yet, let's just assume it's reliable.

• Price point. The first word, price, works much better.

The overall message here is to write like you talk. Sprinkling sentences with phrases like “seamless connectivity solutions optimized for robust deployment” (which I've lifted verbatim from a recent briefing) simply makes you sound like, well, a marketing person. Probably not the image you were going for. If we don't like the doubletalk we hear from politicians and indicted corporate executives, why did we start emulating them? Plain speaking can work wonders—and it's easier, too.

Jim Turley is the editor in chief of Embedded Systems Design. You can reach him at

Reader Response

Also, if you use jargon, or industry-specific terms–know how to spell them!

For instance, I just happened across a real estate flyer that placed a huge premium on the “Paladium” windows each of the houses under construction would feature. Call it prejudice, but if I see Palladian misspelled by someone who should make it their business to know how to use and spell the word, then I automatically assume the person doesn't really know much about the business they are in and could just as easily be selling used cars or VCRs.

As Abraham Lincoln put it: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

– John Teller
Senior principal software engineer
Orbital Sciences Corp.
Scottsdale, AZ

Excellent. Describes most (all?) of the marketing types I've known.Bet they don't see themselves, though!

– Eric Freischlag
Project engineer
Monroe Electronics

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