Stretch your vocabulary (but not in the way you’d expect)

May 20, 2022

Listen instead

Pop quiz.

Why is it important to understand the language of your audience?

I’ll give you a minute.

If you were along for the ride last week - in content design land - our job is to make content unobtrusive, quiet, and reflective of our audience.

And the fastest way to do that is to share their language.

Making your content better, involves stretching your vocabulary in new - possibly unexpected - ways.

Not reading the dictionary and learning as many words as you can, but pulling in how and why different audiences use different terms.

If you don’t know the words your audience is using to talk about the problems you solve for them, how can you expect them to find you?

This isn’t a tick-box SEO exercise. It’s an entire content paradigm: a new way of thinking about content, its purpose, and how you put it together.

Side note: usually this is where I would start on my “SEO isn’t a ‘thing’ like people think it’s a ‘thing’; stop throwing money on SEO support that isn’t grounded in content strategy; it’s just making sure your site is technically sound, delivering the right content, in the right place, at the right time, and accessible to all” tirade…but I’ll spare you today.

Understanding the vocabulary and language of your audience is a foundational aspect of content strategy and content creation.

From the audience’s perspective, speaking their language helps them,

  • Quickly recognise that the content is for them.
  • Find the information they need.
  • Understand the relationship between you and their problem (and how your product, service, or information helps them).

Overall, it reduces their cognitive load. They don’t have to think so much, so they can absorb and act more.

From a business perspective, it helps you,

  • Identify gaps in a website sitemap.
  • Plan a content or blogging strategy.
  • Support SEO.
  • Move your audience from A to B faster. Whatever A to B - curiosity to sale, confused to clear - looks like for you.

And, it doesn’t have to be hard to do.

Free tools

Google TrendsAnswer the publicKeyword Tool. Generally searching some terms and seeing what Google suggests…

There are a range of tools you can use to understand what words people actually search for in scenarios that they might be looking for you. This is a good indication of the language they would use around your topic.

Out of all the free tools, the one that everyone with a website should have is Google Search Console.

It requires some tech set-up to get it running on your site, but once it is, you can get information relating to how your site is appearing in search, when, and why.

The more search traffic you have, the more useful it is. But even if you have low traffic you can get some idea of what real life search terms people are using when,

a) your site appears on a Google search result page.

b) people click through to your site from that page.

It also gives you a whole lot of information on site performance that affects search, which is very handy.

Will you get more information out of a paid tool? Yes. Can you get a good idea to get started out of the freebies? You betcha.

Use your common sense

While it’s not useful to assume that your lived experience of something is the same as everyone else's, there are often moments when your lived experience (and common sense) can go a long way to understanding the language someone might use.

Which brings me to my favourite example of a mismatch between organisational vocabulary and audience vocabulary of all time.

Let’s imagine that you or someone you know was incredibly unwell, having surgery, having a baby, or needed some other form of acute medical care. They get admitted to a purpose built facility for that care. And you want to search for the phone number or address of that facility.

What would you call it?

May I suggest that you’d call it a hospital?

But, in a small town in regional NSW, the building you’ve always called your local hospital may no longer be officially classified as such.

Instead, it might be a Multi Purpose Health Service.

Now, the term hospital stretches back to the latin hospes, used all the way back in ancient Rome. It’s not only very common, but has been very common for a very long time.

So no matter how much sense the name makes (it’s a place that offers more than one type of care, it’s the central hub for local health services, and so on) it would take a huge amount of education and change to help you remember that you’re no longer looking for a hospital. Particularly if you’re in a moment of extreme worry or stress.

Caveat: If you are relying on common sense, make sure you add a big dose of empathy. Being able to recognise that other people see the world differently to you, and step into their shoes, is one of the greatest tools you can add to your toolbox.

Take that as a general life rule, as well as a content rule.


If you want to understand the language someone uses to describe something, ask them.

In my experience, people seem to worry more about asking, than undertaking bulk desktop research, paying for keyword tools, or outsourcing to another company (who have paid for the keyword tools).

It doesn’t have to be hard.

Remember, no matter how big (or small) your business is, at some point someone is going to have to talk to your audience.

Whether it’s you when you have a discovery call or meet with a client, a sales team delivering proposals, or a call centre offering support - conversations already happen.

Use them.

You might not need to bring together your audience for intensive workshops or interviews. Instead, rely on the people already having discussions as your lifeline. Work with them to understand how your audience describes a) their challenges b) what support they need c) what you do or d) all of the above.

Gathering this kind of information is an ongoing process.

You can take your time to gather as much as possible, and create a bank of words and phrases to return to when creating content. Or, you can bake this research into your process so you never create without first trying to understand the language your audience use.

Ideally, you’d do a little bit of both.

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