As writers, communicators, editors, and word “nerds,” we tend to pick up on words and phrases that are out of place, text that makes us cringe. The figurative red pen in my head is continually moving with replacements, sentence restructure, and other edits that include redoing the entire script.

For example, whenever I hear someone, especially a company, use sports analogies, I shake my head. As a communicator, I know this is a poor use of messaging. Why? Because (1) not everyone understands or cares for sports and therefore will not get the reference, and (2) people who are passionate about sports have their favorite teams and whether close to home or global, you could really upset people if you reference specific teams. In fact, you could turn people off or even start a riot.

I’ve written before about how using the wrong words can make you sound unprofessional. But this goes beyond inappropriately using “I could care less” or “irregardless” (both, by the way, are incorrect).

Many words and phrases differ in meaning from country to country. In the United States, Americans tend to use idioms. Merriam-Webster defines “idiom” as: “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements (such as up in the air for “undecided”) or in its grammatically atypical use of words (such as give way).”

If your business or organization is more localized, you won’t run into this challenge much. However, depending on your audience, you will have to adjust your communications to meet their needs and understanding. If you are, in fact, addressing a sports-enthusiastic audience, then your sports analogy might work.

But if you are a global corporation, how you communicate in the United States is different than how you address your workforce in Japan or India.

As freelancers, when we write articles for magazines or partner with companies, we too, must grasp the variations in cultural language and understanding, and the type of audience we are addressing for our communications to be effective.

What do we need to look for in our audience to appropriately communicate with them?


Communicating to a global audience

The English language is one of the hardest to learn because it’s all over the place. One word can have multiple meanings and is pronounced differently each time (or is pronounced the same and then you really have to understand what is being said). Translating it is even more of a challenge.

While businesses have developed their own language altogether with its unnecessary jargon, now they have to translate all that for their global counterparts.

Consider the phrase: “on the other hand.” In the U.S., this means “likewise,” “in addition to,” “instead of,” and other multiple translations (see what I mean? Nothing is consistent.) that make people in Japan scratch their heads.

Consider another example: in Britain, these words mean something different to them than how Americans view them:

Chips: in the UK they are potatoes whereas in the US they are a thin, flat, crispy potato snack.

Pants: in the UK they are underwear whereas in the US they are trousers.

Jumper: in the UK they are a long-sleeve warmer item worn over a shirt, whereas here a jumper is a onesie. The long-sleeve warmer in the US we refer to as a sweater.

Arugula: The fancy peppery lettuce we foodies in the US love in our salad is actually roquette to the English.

You get the idea. What we in the US take for granted because we grew up with a certain understanding of these words, other countries have a completely different meaning in their vocabulary,

What is the solution?

Remove all your idioms and phrases that aren’t literal. Have your communications’ teams in the other countries review your messaging to make sure they understand what you mean, or that the words and phrases are not offensive, and make edits where needed.


Internal vs. external communications

Your internal versus your external audiences are quite different. The internal audience—your employees—understand your company’s lingo better than an external audience. Likely your internal communications are designed to educate your employees. Your objective with your IC is to help your employees develop trust in your organization and lessen resignations.

Your external or your business-to-business (B2B) messaging while also educating people, will contain less business lingo and instead, simpler language with the goal of selling.


Marketing mediums and your messaging

Your various marketing mediums will also need adjustment with your messaging. While you have a similar audience, how they respond with the medium and materials will be different.

For example, your e-newsletter audience is typically in for the duration as they are interested in more in-depth communication about your organization.

Your social media audience wants quick, digestible bits of information.

White papers are more technical and are for a B2B audience.

Annual reports are important for your investors and funders so they know how the funds are used, and what you are doing as an organization in servicing the community.


Final thoughts about messaging

The core of your messaging does not change. How you communicate it to your various audiences will need tailoring. That way, no matter where in the world, or the source of the communications, your audience will understand what you are telling them.

What are some words or phrases you find confusing from one country to the next?

Communication for a global corporation will vary from a local business. A nonprofit organization’s message will differ from a worldwide to a community-based nonprofit. And when you write e-newsletters either internal or external, annual reports, or white papers, your language will adjust according to your specific audience.

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