I started thinking about the power of language whilst I was reading Shiv Singh’s Social Media Marketing for Dummies.
It’s not that this power was a new thing, secret societies like Freemasonry used key turns of phrase as a way to help identify each other and some of them made it into common parlance of British English such as being ‘on the level’.
It wasn’t only secret societies that had their own phraseology. Polari was used in the UK groups outside normal society: circus folk, fairground workers, criminals, actors, prostitutes and the gay community. This is where the expression ‘naff’ comes from in British English.
Jargon is also used as a terms of reference. I have a raft of different phrases and meanings for languages based on the different careers I have had to date. For instance, ‘messaging’ has a very definite meaning for a PR person, which is different to the meanings that an IT person would infer. A christmas tree to someone working in the oil industry is not the wilting pine tree you threw out early in the new year, but a series of valves used to regulate the pressure on an oil well and providing mulitple levels of safety to ensure it doesn’t blow up.
These terms of reference can become very specialised in themselves, for instance the legal professions use of the english language, or try having a read of a local authority website. Both of these bodies have a definitive use of language that many of use use more freely.
In the same way that professions have their own language traits, so do companies. This language has built up as the employees have shared a common journey and reflect part of the culture. When I was at Yahoo! pinging meant to sent an instant message to someone and to ‘bleed purple’ meant that you were a Yahoo through-and-through (an employee is a Yahoo, the company is Yahoo!). Working on the Microsoft account means learning a plethora of corporate speak that has developed within their company usually from engineering terminology.
Even PR agencies have this culture; for instance at Waggener Edstrom key messages that a client would seek to deliver through their campaigns is called the Master Narrative. The process of developing a proactive pitch and working with the journalist to turn it into a feature is called Storytelling.
The language helps foster a common culture, there is a huge difference to those in the company versus those people outside the organisation.
‘Owning’ bits of jargon can help an organisation get thought leadership in a particular sector, so they become the go-to people and make a load of money. In a fast-moving market like the technology sector this can cause ambiguity and confusion – sometimes it is intended to.
I remember hearing about two senior management at rival companies almost coming to blows over what BPM (business process management) actually meant during a conference in London a number of years ago. Or hearing an IT journalist talk about heterogeneous computing environments meaning computer systems Windows, Macs, Linux | UNIX and mainframe computers questioning a Microsoft spokesperson at another conference about how on earth their definition of heterogeneous computing environments meant different versions of Windows.
Shiv Singh’s book reminded me of these example by the way he not too subtly moves the language in the book away from social media marketing to social influencer marketing (SIM), which happens to be Razorfish’s go-to-market proposition. Where this gets interesting is that social media marketing is a fast-moving market looking for a lexicon because most of the language currently used either doen’t fit all that well, vague, or has connotations with work done outside the social media sphere – in effect there is a verbose vacuum – something that marketers are loath not to fill. Respect where its due, what Shiv has done is a smart play.