UPDATED JULY 19, 2023
Communication barriers are everywhere
I spend most of my working life online and I see the same mistakes every day.
Businesses, unwittingly, putting barriers between them and their target audience — and they don’t even seem to realise they’re doing it.
Barriers like these can alienate and disengage your audience, making them feel you don’t understand them and that you’re probably not the right business for them.
Are you putting your audience first?
Your written communications should be created for your audience — focusing on their problems and their needs.
Everything you write should be written for them, in a way that’s clear, engaging and easy to understand.
In this article, I’ll reveal 5 common copywriting barriers and show you how to identify them and remove them to make your copy stronger and more effective.
5 Communication barriers to be aware of
1. Insider language
You probably use some industry terms and abbreviations in your business. You’re familiar with them, you know what they mean — and your colleagues know what they mean. But what about your customers?
If a term is likely to be unfamiliar to your audience, you need to explain what it means. And ditto any abbreviations.
Some of the most common abbreviations used in copy and content are initialisms and acronyms. These abbreviations are handy because they shorten much longer phrases. But if your audience doesn’t know what they mean, they’ll create a communication barrier.
What is an initialism?
An initialism is an abbreviation formed using the first letters of each word in a sequence.
- DfT —> Department for Transport
- FAQ —> Frequently Asked Question
- HMRC —> His Majesty’s Revenue & Customs
- HSE —> Health and Safety Executive.
What is an acronym?
An acronym is an initialism where the abbreviated initials make a readable word.
- BOGOF — Buy One, Get One Free
- DEFRA —> Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs
- PIN —> Personal Identification Number
- FOMO —> Fear Of Missing Out.
Why are these abbreviations a problem?
Imagine trying to read something and constantly having to break off to look up abbreviations you’ve never heard of before.
Does that sound like fun?
Didn’t think so.
But this is what your reader has to do when you use unexplained abbreviations in your copy.
And every time your readers have to break away from reading your copy, you risk losing them altogether. Because they might just give up and not bother coming back.
How to use abbreviations
Initialisms and acronyms save you typing out the full names of things — and I’m all for anything that makes things easier.
But if they might create a barrier, write them out fully the first time you use them with the abbreviation in brackets at the end. Like this: Health and Safety Executive (HSE). From that point you can just use HSE, because your audience will know what it means.
2. Highfalutin language
‘Highfalutin’? What does that mean? Is it some kind of wild west term?
It actually means pompous, posh and showy. Language like this can make you sound arrogant, snobbish and aloof, which might not be especially appealing to your target audience.
Some businesses think they need to sound highbrow, using lots of big words, but this isn’t always appropriate. Take this AI-written copy, for example, which uses highfalutin language to advertise a simple can of tomato soup:
“Gather, gastronomic enthusiasts! Prepare to embark upon a culinary odyssey like no other, as we present to you a can of tomato soup that transcends the ordinary, defying the conventions of flavour and sophistication.
Within its confines lies a symphony of vibrant tomatoes, meticulously simmered to perfection, harmonising with aromatic herbs and savoury spices, dancing upon your palate with every spoonful.”
Needless to say, the people who would buy this can of tomato soup don’t talk like this!
What’s the problem with highfalutin language?
When businesses use highfalutin language, at least one of these things usually happens:
- They end up sounding pretentious and fake
- They make errors because this language doesn’t come naturally to them
- They don’t get their message across properly because they’re more concerned with how they’re saying it than what it actually says
- Their ideal customers don’t feel seen or understood because the company isn’t speaking their language
- Their target audience doesn’t feel any connection to or affinity with their brand.
The right language to use
You need to know your prospects and write language that’s appropriate for them.
One way to do that is to look at the language your prospects are using and use this in your copy. This is something professional copywriters have been doing for a long time — and it can make a huge difference.
When you speak your ideal customers’ language, they’ll feel more connected with your brand and more inclined to buy from you.
3. Off-brand language
Your brand messaging needs to align what you’re selling with who you’re selling it to. If your messaging seems confused, your prospects will be confused, too.
- You run a high end restaurant, but your copy sounds more like a back street café
- You work mostly with sole traders, but your copy talks about teams and delegation
- You run a discount shop and constantly talk about ‘quality’ and ‘excellence’
- Your brand is focused on sustainability but you don’t practise what you preach.
Why should your language align with your brand?
The most successful brands are popular because they know their audience and how to talk to them.
If there’s a disconnect between what you’re offering and your ideal customers, the people who are most likely to buy from you will think you’re not for them.
How to write about your brand more successfully
To write a strong brand message, using on-brand language, you need to be clear on your brand’s:
- Target market
- Reason for being
- Values and culture
- Promise to your customers.
These things should be at the heart of everything you write. And they should run through your brand copy like the letters running through a stick of seaside rock.
4. Corporate language
Every business wants to sound professional. But some businesses equate sounding professional with sounding corporate — and they’re not the same thing.
Rather than being engaging and interesting, corporate language sounds stuffy and boring. It’s often more company focused than customer focused and it uses formal language that would be more at home on a solicitor’s letter.
Take this much-too-corporate toothbrush ad, for example:
We’re delighted to present to you, the ToothPro 7: a new standard in the field of oral care. With its precision-engineered bristle arrangement and ergonomically considered handle, it’s designed to deliver an effective and comfortable cleaning experience.
What’s the problem with sounding corporate?
Some communications need corporate language — like business contracts and legal letters, for example.
But for sales copy and blog content it’s too stiff, matter-of-fact and emotionless. And it’s not something people would choose to read.
How to sound professional
When you’re writing copy and content — and you want people to read it — you need to intrigue, inspire and engage them. Corporate sounding copy just won’t do that.
Communicating professionally is about more than just the words and language you use. It’s about knowing and understanding your audience and using language that’s appropriate for them. With that in mind, it’s worth remembering that the average reading age in the UK is 9.
5. Vague language
Vague language is hard to pin down because it never really commits to anything.
It’s full of maybes, mights, cans and coulds. And it’s sketchy on the details, speaking generally rather than specifically.
Like this piece of content on staycations, which doesn’t really tell us anything:
Some research studies have shown slight increases in the numbers of people enjoying staycations, but this is more or less the same as last year, perhaps because of cost or perhaps because of convenience. Staycations could be more popular in the years to come as some people might prefer to stay in the UK.
What’s the problem with vague language?
Vague language doesn’t sound confident or credible and there’s nothing persuasive or convincing about it. Using language like this makes you sound weak, indecisive and unreliable.
With this language it’s your audience putting up the barriers, because you don’t seem trustworthy and that puts them on their guard.
How to write more confidently and authoritatively
There are a number of ways to write more confidently and authoritatively. Starting with being specific, precise and explicit in the way you convey information.
You can read more about how to do that in my separate article:
These are all extreme examples, but they all come back to the same thing: your audience. Before you write anything, you should know:
- Who you’re writing it for
- What they already understand
- What they need to understand
- How they communicate.
And you should be clear on your brand and what it should mean to your ideal customers.
Do you need more audience-friendly copy or content?
If you’re struggling to write copy that connects with your audience, chances are you’re too close to it. You need someone who can look at it objectively and tell you where you’re going wrong.
I’m Jenny Lucas, a freelance copywriter and content writer based in Leicester, UK.
I specialise in creating engaging copy and content that’s written specially for your target audience and is designed to generate more leads and new business.