Do we even know what jargon looks like? Many think it’s acronyms or their company’s internal language. Others say it’s trendy buzzwords and phrases. (With the 90s well behind us, I thankfully haven’t heard of anyone opening the kimono lately). Others call out writing that’s boring and bureaucratic. Jargon can be those things, but there’s more to it.
Jargon Crashes the Party
I finally learned one useful definition for jargon, even after years of writing professionally. The definition has since helped me not only identify and eliminate jargon, it forces me to think bigger about a document’s purpose.
The thing is, there’s no word that is jargon every time. Everything depends on context.
For our different roles in life, we have different vocabulary and speaking styles that we change based on the occasion. A college linguistics class taught me that these are called codes.
We have codes for our friends and family, for our colleagues and bosses, for customers and prospects and so on. We routinely code switch between them, in a split second without even thinking about it.
Naturally, our professions have codes too—phrases that act as shorthand for the members of our club. There is a vocabulary for doctor speaking to doctor, tax advisor to tax advisor, comedian to comedian.
For club members, code words are useful because they have special meaning and save time. In fact, sometimes an acronym shortens things up nicely. As long as everyone understands it, there’s no harm done.
But when doctors use doctor’s code so speak to patients, they’re using jargon. And that’s not acceptable.
Jargon Gets Aggressive
Most of the time, it’s just a harmless mistake. The speaker has forgotten the audience and what they’re likely to know. But too often, jargon is used like a weapon. It’s snarling, “I know more about this than your tiny little brain will ever understand, so just accept what I’m saying and know that I’m right.”
These are the cases when jargon is trying to pull one over on you. It doesn’t want to be questioned. It doesn’t want to stand up to scrutiny. It’s not only resting on its laurels, it’s hiding behind them.
“Our audience understands this word”
Everyone’s work is technical in some way, so I often have to ask clients for clarification on the terms they use. That’s one of the beauties of working with a third-party writer – we’re natural jargon detectors.
Sometimes when I point out that we should define something because not all of the audience will know it, they get defensive. “It’s OK for our people. Everyone here knows it.”
If I persist, they dig in. They say they don’t want to ‘dumb it down’. That’s a cop out.
‘Dumbing down’ is actually Smartening Up
First of all, most organizations aren’t made up of just one type. Big companies also employ lawyers, marketers, accountants, clerks, receptionists, many others. Just because they work at the same place doesn’t mean they are all up to speed on each other’s codes.
When people don’t know a word or phrase, they tend to say nothing because they’re afraid they’ll look stupid. Your insistence on jargon takes away from the collaborative atmosphere your company’s trying to build.
Second, let’s be honest. There’s a good chance that not even all of your management know these terms. Defining them on first reference is good practice because it’s the only way to be certain that everyone is on the same page. Junior-level employees may not know the codes as well as your upper level, and if it’s related to online tools, you can be certain your younger employees know more than the older ones about that ever-changing “series of tubes”.
Third, business vocabulary is always evolving, and it even varies across work groups. For consultants, SME can mean Subject Matter Experts, but for marketers it’s Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises.
Not knowing what a term means is just the first problem. If someone thinks they know what it means but misinterpret it, you could have an even bigger one.
Last, is it really such a disaster if your copy reads easily, even for executives? Every C-level executive I’ve ever worked with is extremely busy. They want to know what the main idea is within the first few seconds of reading. They don’t have the time to parse and interpret dense text, and in my experience, they’re not going to try.
The problem with jargon is that it isn’t meant to communicate. It’s meant to conceal, to fit in, possibly even to intimidate and silence. Written copy that relies on it is the opposite of clarity and a human connection. Getting rid of it is at the heart of communicators doing their jobs responsibly.