Using the Right Words

05/18 7 min read

I was thinking earlier today about the words we use in the IT industry. In fact, I often think about it. I like to believe I’m quite thoughtful about the words I use, especially when replying to emails or messages that require more than just a few words! Sometimes I can even be too thoughtful with words in conversations, to the point I can embarrass myself because I go to speak one word and think another and clumsily end up saying them both in one go! Doh!

You could argue that “picking your words carefully” is an increasingly valuable skill to have today. We live in a time when a dodgy tweet from years ago can land you in hot water! I wouldn’t say that the threat of being sacked because of a dodgy tweet is what fuels my care with my words though (challenge of the day check my Twitter feed, you won’t find any…) it’s more fuelled by wanting to be as clear as I can, when trying to get my point across, or explaining a complicated concept. If you get your words wrong you may lose your chance to ever convince somebody your way is the right way.

Words are crucial to understanding. I’m sure we’ve all been there - you’re in a rush to do something, and you’re waiting on an email to clarify the situation. The email comes, and the grammar is wrong, or perhaps a word is spelt wrong, but it’s enough to make you doubt your direction. So, you can’t proceed, and you must waste your time waiting for a response to clarify what should have been clarified in the first email! If that person had just taken 10 seconds more to re-read, or pick their words more carefully, you could be half way to a completed task by now.

Time taken to get your words right, first time, can save you so much time in the future. You can say this is the case for anything. On so many occasions, even recently, I remember thinking if I had just done a bit more research, and taken a bit more time to consider something, it would have saved me hours of frustration - it’s so easy to get this stuff wrong.

This is the reason I put so much thought and attention into picking my words, because they are so important. Words can emotionally crush, or they can inspire, and my experience of IT is that we don’t always use the right words, or even communicate effectively at all, and the words we use often turn people off.

When I left school at 16, I had no desire to go to college or university, so I didn’t. I haven’t done badly for myself at all in that time, and not once have I regretted it. I’ve had the kind of work experience that many my age still haven’t had yet. I’d been working for almost 8 years by the time my friends left education for the first time.

What has that got to do with the importance of using the right words? The reason is, I’ve learnt so much about customer service since my first job, I’d not be where I am today without it, and I won’t get to where I want to be without it (none of us will) but so often in IT we forget that, we’re so focused on the technical, that we forget who uses the technical systems we create and support - normal, non-technical people.

I spent the first 3 years of my working life at Sainsbury’s. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but it gave me the foundations I needed for my future. I learnt more in those 3 years at Sainsbury’s then I ever did in my entire school education. One of those things, as I said, is customer service. If I ever become Prime Minister (don’t worry, that’s not going to happen, although I used to want to be, before I “grew up”) I’d make it mandatory for 16 year olds to do a year of retail work experience. That’s how important the customer service skills I learnt in my time at Sainsbury’s (and have had years of development since) have been to me.

If you don’t learn how important the customer is, whatever form that customer takes in your job, you are going to have a hard time in your role, and you’re going to struggle to use, yet alone care, about the words you’re using with them.

For the vast majority of us who work, we have a customer, whether internal or external, and if you don’t know how to, or even try to, provide the best possible service you can to them then you’re not going to have a very enjoyable time, and neither are they, and consequently it’s probably going to give you more work to do, because you’re going to have unsatisfied customers.

Over the years since I left Sainsbury’s, as my customers changed and my customer service skills developed further, I’ve learnt that that old cliche “communication is key” is as true as it can be. Communication is the absolute key to winning your customer over and keeping them happy, and if you have happy customers, that means you can be more efficient and provide better service to your other customers.

That is where the power and importance of the words you use comes in.

I take the time I do to respond with my words, because I take the time to think about how best I can explain the problems I’m trying to solve. It’s so easy in the technology industry to blind your customer with buzzwords, and technical jargon, just to stop them coming back to you with more questions.

When you have a problem, a really frustrating problem, the last thing you want to do is “log a support ticket”, you just want to shout “HELP!”, point at the problem, and have someone know how to fix it, whilst having to explain as little as possible! If we miss that reality, the reality being that most tickets in IT are logged in frustration, and then we add to that frustration by responding to them in binary, then we’re completely missing the point!

My primary role in IT is to serve people - my customers, for me they are “internal”, they are my colleagues, for others it may be the person on the street, but the important thing is to communicate effectively with words that don’t frustrate them further, but “steady the ship” and provide a sensible, easy to understand solution to their problem.

Earlier today I had the opportunity to use a word that my “customer” would not have had a clue about, I’m not even sure I really even know what it means, but I could have used it to make me look clever (or so I thought!). Instead I swapped that word for something much easier to understand, even if it wasn’t 100% technically accurate. It explained the situation in a way that they could totally comprehend and that was most important.

Most of the time, your customer is not going to care if the explanation you give isn’t the most technically accurate in the world, they probably aren’t interested in the details, they just want to know it’s fixed, and it isn’t going to happen again. That’s not misleading them, that’s explaining it to them in the best, most accessible, “straight to the point” way.

I don’t think customers just want to hear “that’s fixed”, they want to hear what caused it, will it happen again, should I be doing anything differently? Telling them that “I’ve successfully fixed the error on the flexible replicating sync logs across the flux capacitor entries on your scripted motherboard that were outputting pure binary” probably isn’t going to do you any favours, and you’re going to have to waste your time, and there time explaining what an earth you are on about!

We should always be concious of, and extremely careful with the words we use, especially when we’re in the role of “expert”. Don’t blind people with buzzwords or technical jargon!

Remember one day someone may ask you to explain that ridiculous word you just rolled off your tongue, and you might not know what it actually means! Use words that mean something, use words that simplify the concepts you are explaining, and you’ll win a lot of happy customers this way.

Just because “The IT Crowd” got it so wrong doesn’t mean we have to!

Thanks for reading.


I'm a technology professional who's been passionate about computers since my Grandad introduced me to an Intel 386 back in the 90s when I was a kid. Those moments inspired a passion within for technology, and I've been playing around with anything with a circuit board ever since. Whenever I have a moment you can probably find me working on something computer-related, and this is where I like to write about those moments.