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Jargon in Catalogs or Online: Three Reader-Friendly Solutions

by Marcia Yudkin

Someone was half-asleep while producing the Lands' End clothing catalog I received not too long ago. The attractive cover shows a pretty woman picking oranges and the headline, "Introducing Sun.Life: The most comfortable UPF clothing under the sun." If someone doesn't know what the acronym "UPF" stands for or what it does, there's not one clue on the cover to guide them.

On page 9, the text for this product includes the bullet point "UPF 30 protection without the high price tag," again without any explanation. Page 5 has a bullet point "UPF 50 protection," equally explanation-free. Although Page 7 explains what "UPF" stands for, why it's beneficial and how to understand the numbers, nothing sends foggy readers there so they'll be able to interpret UPF numbers as intended.

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I saw the same willingness to baffle some Lands' End readers in shoe descriptions that talk about an "antimicrobial lining" or an "EVA footbed" with no context to clue in someone who hadn't seen those terms before. Expecting catalog readers to have the patience to hunt down a hidden or absent key to product jargon is both foolish and unnecessary.

Catalog shoppers who encounter product terms they don't understand miss the intended point and do not buy. Manufacturers and retailers always estimate that way more members of their target market know their terminology than actually do. You must, must, must help readers along!

Here are three techniques copywriters and catalog designers can use to help less knowledgeable readers "get it" - and remind those who are hazy on the terms so they can follow along with understanding.

1. Include a parenthetical gloss. The easiest way to explain something - and less obtrusively than you might expect - is to provide a definition that is set off from the main flow of the prose. Use parentheses, a pair of dashes or a pair of commas to clarify a term for those who don't know it without annoying those who do. For example:

UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor)
UPF - which signifies sunscreen power -
UPF, an indicator of protection against the harmful rays of the sun,

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2. Provide context. Surround the jargon with hints, synonyms and alternative ways of expressing the benefit of the technology so the smart reader picks up the meaning without encountering a formal definition. Some examples:

  • The antimicrobial lining - say goodbye to foot stink! - stays cushy and cool all summer.

  • Their padded EVA insoles add more bounce to your stride.

  • Its UPF 50 cotton gives you the best sunburn protection you can get in a T-shirt.

3. Present a primer or glossary. Add a sidebar (boxed text), an asterisk with an explanatory footnote or a formal, full explanation on one page of the catalog to which you refer readers on every other page where the jargon appears.

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If jargon appears on only one or two pages of a catalog, you have the greatest degree of choice and flexibility in how to clue in the reader. Resist the temptation to assume that providing a parenthetical explanation, context or definitions on one page only solves the problem, because catalog shoppers do not necessarily read pages in a certain order or pay attention to what's on other pages than the one that caught their interest first.

Online, you have the convenience of being able to insert a hyperlink to the definition of any jargon on a separate page, perhaps in a glossary.  The hyperlink can also trigger a popup or tiny window containing the definition.

Test your solutions by giving a mockup of the catalog or web page to readers who may not know the jargon. Ask them to start anywhere and point out anything they do not understand. No questions? Great. Above all, keep in mind that whatever you are writing, clarity must always trump cleverness.

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