Do You Know Your Job’s “Suitcase Words?”

I love learning a new word for something I previously had no way of consistently expressing. In Rodney Brook’s 2017 essay, “The Seven Deadly Sins of AI Predictions,” he introduces us (well, me at least) to “suitcase words.” He said,

Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings “suitcase words.” “Learning” is a powerful suitcase word; it can refer to so many different types of experience. Learning to use chopsticks is a very different experience from learning the tune of a new song. And learning to write code is a very different experience from learning your way around a city.

Brooks also told Russ Roberts in a separate interview that people will frequently use suitcase words as rhetorical flourishes. By taking a word like “learning,” which everyone has some personal attachment to, a person can shroud complexity in a subtle yet convincing argument. This can be used for forces of good and evil – and that’s what makes having a label for these terms so valuable.

While Artificial Intelligence may have its own list of suitcase words, we should note that every business is going to have several of their own. This is part of the DNA of marketing – we need digestible pieces of information that lead people towards an exchange of value. It’s a common practice to pack complexity into a familiar suitcase another party can carry themselves. Marketing master David Ogilvy said, “If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think.” So suitcase words are extremely valuable – but we also need to make sure they are not misleading.

Like so many things, proper use starts with intent. Think of the luggage x-ray at the airport. Did you pack normal stuff in your suitcase or something nefarious? What if you forgot you packed that kitchen knife in your carryon? Intent is the x-ray test. Most people mean well, but others may be trying to swindle us. A suitcase can be as convenient a way to hide intentions as it can be to communicate “this is like that.”

In any profession where one party may have more information than the other (finance, taxes, law, medicine come to mind), the professional must be aware of their most common suitcase words. For finance, that includes risk, diversification, and trading to name a few. Before we utter any of these, we should be confident that we deeply understand how the concept actually helps to relate the advice to the client’s needs and preferences. Speaking in “their language,” in Ogilvy’s definition, should also equally mean “in their best interest.”

Be on the watch for suitcase words both in our own environment and in our own practices. We must carefully think about how they unpack. When there’s a word or concept we realize we don’t understand, we should ask for help or an explanation. The suitcase word is a fine addition to our marketing skills and our baloney-detection kit.

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