The Importance of Definitions: 5 Steps to Building Your Measurement Project Dictionary

A good friend recently asked to borrow my kitchen for a party and promised, “Don’t worry we’ll clean up everything by morning.” I quickly agreed, and envisioned awaking the next day to find a sparkling kitchen, with the floor a lot cleaner than I left it. Instead I found a mess:


I forgot that “clean up” means something very different for me than it does for someone in her 20s. The same is true for timeliness. I was expecting a clean kitchen when I came down to make coffee at six am, but “morning” has a different meaning for different people.

For a teenager, “cleaning up” probably means bringing everything to the sink. For a 20-something it might mean actually bringing dishes to the sink and then putting them in the dishwasher. And for some very diligent adults it might mean scrubbing the floors, scouring the counters, doing all the dishes, and putting them away.

Communication can be tricky if your terms aren’t defined.

Carefully defined terms are more important than ever.

If a phrase as common as “cleaning up” can be defined and interpreted in so many different ways, just think how often confusion ensues when our professional jargon isn’t properly defined.

Perhaps the worst offender in communications measurement is the term “engagement.” In internal communications, “engagement” probably means that employees have attended meetings, participated in community events, earned praise or a raise, are less likely to look elsewhere for a job, and more likely to recommend the company as a good place to work.

But in social media it means a like, share, or comment.

I recently read an RFP that requested “insight,” and I realized that even though I’d seen and used the word a thousand times before, I had no idea what this prospective client was asking for. Did she mean insight from data, insight into the working of the communications team, insight into the competitive marketplace? I hadn’t a clue.

Equal confusion reigns over “sentiment,” “tone,” “messages,” and for that matter even things as basic as “subject,” “product,” “company,” or “brand.” I’ve had to write detailed definitions for all of those terms.

Perhaps it’s the geek in me, but it seems I spend an inordinate amount of time defining words these days. In almost every issue of this newsletter, you’ll find some little piece on how different things that are often confused should be correctly defined. As silos crumble, and as lines blur between marketing and communications, and between PR and social, we need to remember that each specialty has its own language and definitions. The more these disciplines and departments come together, the more critical clarity becomes.

5 steps to building your measurement project dictionary.

1. Start by creating your own dictionary based on what you believe are “standard” definitions. Don’t get too enamored of any of them because, I promise you, they will change. Add in any other unfamiliar terms you may have heard bandied about with whatever googled definition you chose. Use our Sample Measurement Project Dictionary as a template or starting point.

2. Next, convene a meeting of the highest-ranking leaders you can gather. Add in representatives of any agencies, vendors, suppliers, contractors, or anyone else who might touch or influence your data and/or your reporting. Distribute your list of terms in advance and invite people to add to it if they desire.

Now, we all know perfectly well that no one will actually read the list ahead of time, so your emailed invitation to the meeting should include an assumptive clause, as in: “Unless I hear otherwise I assume that you agree with and approve of the attached definitions.”

During the meeting, go through the words one by one until you begin to sense a rising level of fury and exasperation. Let the discussion progress for at least another fifteen minutes until you’re sure that everyone’s opinion has been heard. Take copious notes and then suggest that everyone email you their changes and then you will compile the results.

3. Once you have everyone’s input, go through your dictionary and put every definition through the Mom/Dad Test. Ask yourself, “Does this make enough sense that my mom or dad might have a prayer of understanding it?” Even better, find an intern, preferably one with a degree in something well outside the communications field (e.g., Asian Studies, Math, or Environmental Science). Read them each definition and see if they agree. Your goal is to arrive at the broadest and most generally understood definitions possible.

4. Get your boss to buy into the list and bless it. Then give everyone six weeks to learn the new definitions, change their terminology and reporting, and in short, get it right.

5. After six weeks, reject anything from anyone that doesn’t adhere to your new definitions. Make the offender go back and fix their work for free.

(And, yes, I now have a written definition of what “cleaned up” and “in the morning” means for anyone that uses my kitchen.) ∞




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