Every group, whether they are doctors, musicians, or engineers, has its own jargon. When one of these insider linguistic shorthands creeps into everyday conversation, it can be intimidating to outsiders. For example, a conversation between two software designers might sound like complete gibberish to the uninitiated, but that combination of unfamiliar phrases, acronyms and made-up words lets them communicate easily and convey precise meanings.
Jargon is perfectly acceptable when it is used among a specialized audience. The mistake that many companies, particularly in the tech fields, make is using the same terminology when talking to a more general audience, such as in marketing or public relations communications. To put it simply, you can’t get your message across to people who have no idea what you’re talking about.
In politics and bureaucracies, jargon is sometimes used to disguise what’s really going on, or to make the mundane sound grandiose. Some of the more acute examples I’ve seen: an HR department using “rectification of a workforce imbalance” to explain a layoff, and a sales fax (Remember when that was cutting-edge marketing?) defined as a “high-ranking digital envoy.” Really? That was the best way to say that.
Buzzwords and jargon won’t enhance your message if no one can follow you. A lot of businesses these days talk about “shifting the paradigm,” “monetizing the solution,” or “engineering a disruption” without ever really explaining what those phrases mean or putting them into context. Don’t fall into that trap. Sometimes different groups of people use the same word with vastly different meanings. That can also have dire consequences.
Using jargon won’t make you sound smarter or enhance your message if no one can figure out what you’re saying. Your press release, public-facing blog or inbound marketing efforts should be conversational in tone. Talk to people, not at them. Avoid terms and language that are not commonly used, particularly those that could be misleading. The more accessible you make your subject, the larger an audience you’ll be able to reach.
When you’re speaking about your business or profession to an audience of potential customers, use the same language you would explaining it to your uncle at a family barbecue.
Tips for Keeping Jargon to a Minimum
- Know your audience. Do they have the vocabulary to understand your message?
- Keep it simple. If there’s a less complicated way to express your idea without changing the meaning—use it.
- Use everyday language. Your audience shouldn’t have to use a dictionary (even an online one) to decipher your meaning.
- Don’t use made-up words.
- Sometimes a technical term is the only way to say something. If you do rely on one, be sure you explain what it means.
- Only use jargon in instances where it can help to explain, describe, or amplify your message.
- Tell a story. Storytelling is the essence of good communication. If you have a good story that illustrates what you’re trying to say, and resonates with your audience, there’s no need to fall back on jargon and buzzwords.
- Remember, using jargon doesn’t make you sound smarter and buzzwords quickly lose impact.
In addition to these tips there are two online sources that can help you get the jargon out of your messages. The first is the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees from many different agencies and specialties who are working to foster the use of clear communication in government writing.
The second is the Hemingway App, which isn’t aimed specifically at eliminating jargon, but rather offers an analysis of any written content for clarity and comprehension. It’s a tool I’ve personally found very helpful.
Overreliance on jargon and buzzwords can turn what is intended to be a thoughtful communication into an incomprehensible word salad and leave the opposite impression you intended. So think carefully about the words you use and whether they will help or hurt your message. If your kid in elementary school or your elderly mother wouldn’t know what you’re talking about—find another way to say it.