Thursday, September 2, 2010

Jettison the Jargon

Would you send a sales letter written in Japanese to a prospect who understood only English?

Ludicrous as the idea sounds, many a businessperson does almost the same thing by loading writings for the general public with technical terms incomprehensible outside a specific industry. Today's post title, "Jettison the Jargon," was borrowed from a lay preacher's warning to beware of such phrases as "washed in the blood" when discussing theology with today's average citizen, who wasn't raised on the King James Bible. Every profession from medicine to manufacturing carries similar "jargon" hazards. Ask, "What immediately comes to mind when you hear 'CD'"? and the typical banker's response will be quite different from that of the typical person on the street.

The habit of saying--or writing--what immediately comes to mind is related to many a problem, but perhaps none so insidious as the unconscious assumption that because something is clear to you, it will naturally be clear to everyone else. Most of us know that repeating spoken words louder and louder doesn't really help puzzled listeners comprehend what we're saying; most of us do it anyway, because human "logic" says that we just have to get the words across. The truth is, it's fully possible for a listener of normal intelligence to understand every word or syllable spoken and yet be unable to mentally string them together into a comprehensible whole. Once a brain registers "I'll be going to Seattle" as "I'll be going to see Attel," the translator circuit considers its work done on that sentence--and it becomes all but impossible to clarify what was actually said without rewording or elaborating.

Written communications are more capable of getting exact words across accurately, but carry hazards of their own. Writers rarely see the bewildered or bored expressions that warn speakers to clarify their words. Asking a writer to explain himself is too complicated for most readers to even bother. Thus, the assumption that "of course everyone understands what I'm saying" is free to work its damage unhindered; readers simply throw out or click away from materials they don't understand, leaving writers to wonder why their PR campaigns are getting nowhere.

Industry jargon is particularly dangerous because, often, everyone immediately available to proofread is equally familiar with "insider language." A company editor or even the person at the next desk can check a written piece for general comprehensibility; but when it comes to jargon, fifteen coworkers may agree that the piece is easy to understand and it may still bewilder an outsider. References to non-universal business practices, words for technologies rarely used by the public, acronyms with alternate meanings--all are so easily understood once learned, one quickly forgets that they might as well be written in code if presented for the first time without explanation.

For really important materials--a sales campaign on which your quarterly business plan hangs--you could do far worse than hire an outside writer with experience in multiple industries or in dealing directly with the public. (If your immediate reaction is "But we have a team of staff writers," reread the last paragraph.) For a blog or social media page, try to link every industry reference directly to its definition. (You may want to include a "jargon" glossary in the template; you definitely should clarify the most-used terms in your Frequently Asked Questions section.) And wherever you can, define a term when it is first used. That's particularly easy for acronyms; just write out the whole phrase, followed by the abbreviation (in parentheses), after which you're free to save space by using the acronym throughout the rest of the document.

But unless it in fact has value to concise language (say a concept is essential to the document's purpose and there's no generic synonym for the industry term) or some other tenet of good writing, try to avoid jargon altogether. Like slang and clich├ęs, it's too often the lazy person's substitute for thinking up better ways of saying things.

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