The other day, a friend sent me a job posting from a well-known technology company. The first sentence included the phrase creates top-of-the-funnel content to drive form completes, engagement and establish thought leadership status.”

I nearly broke out in hives. My aversion to corporate jargon is exactly that strong. 

The posting went on to include the words “pipeline,” “mindset,” “influencers,” “fuel growth” and “exponential growth of traffic.” The position objective was to make the brand more “human, accessible and relatable.”

Here’s a thought: You want to sound human? Be human. Relate to your audience. Ditch the jargon.

Then and Now

Historically, jargon was “an unstable, rudimentary, hybrid language used as a means of communication between persons having no other language in common.” (Encyclopedia Brittanica) In other words, it was the verbal equivalent of Emoji. As early as the 17th century, jargon was a synonym for “gibberish,” and…well, not much has changed over the past 400 years.

There’s a distinction between industry-specific language and jargon. The former is necessary; there are certain words that have unique meanings within the context of a given industry. The latter makes the writer sound like he swallowed a glossary and regurgitated it over his keyboard. Industry-specific language creates operational definitions among an audience with a shared vocabulary; jargon creates an air of exclusivity and elitism.

Jargon is cliché. Just as every cliché began as a profound insight, there was a time when somebody in the corporate world thought a given metaphor was useful – and it probably was. Then everyone started using it, and it lost all meaning. Jargon-filled writing is lazy and doesn’t create an impact. Take the time to be original – that’s what “thought leadership” is, right? Saying things differently, being…y’know, different.

One of the biggest problems with jargon is that, in the 21st century, your audience – whether you’re a company or an author – is global. Many of them aren’t native English speakers, and idioms and metaphors are among the most confusing aspects of our already difficult-to-learn language.

A couple of years ago, I used the phrase “sweet spot” in a document designed for a worldwide audience. One of the reviewers, a German man, came back and said, “You can’t use that. It doesn’t translate.” That’s a really good point. “Sweet spot” is a baseball metaphor (where a particular spot on the ball hits the optimal part of the bat for maximum impact), and baseball is primarily an American game.

When I read a company website or a manuscript, or even a Twitter bio that says something like “We leverage synergistic thought leadership to maximize impact across multiple channels,” I get the impression that the author has no idea what they’re actually saying (and, in the case of a company website, what the company actually does).

Jargon doesn’t sound knowledgeable. It sounds pretentious. If I have to stop and think about – or worse, look up – what a word means, you’ve lost me as a reader, and you’ve lost your connection with me. And communication, at its heart, is all about connecting with another human being – whether you’re helping them to live a more authentic life or teaching them how to use their new laptop.

The patronizing tone that underlies jargon is more likely to diminish a reader’s opinion of your brand than it is to impress them. This is largely subconscious: I no longer feel that you meet my needs as a customer, and I may look for another brand that treats me as an equal, as a human being who is contributing to their success.

Jargon is exclusionary. It divides, rather than unifies; it puts readers off rather than inviting them in. Write to include people, to invite them into the shared space between you.

Solutions

Say what you mean. Use plain English. Describe the issue, situation, benefit, story, product (or, ahem, job) in your own words.

There are software programs that will help you cut the jargon, though unless your target reader is an algorithm, you’re better off using a human editor. Run your language by somebody in your desired audience, and see if they understand.

Writing complicated material in plain English is difficult. That’s why so few people do it well. It requires learning all the technical information well enough to be able to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand, without sounding like a condescending jerk. To be able to then take it to the next level, where the information is not only clear but communicated in an engaging way, is magic. 

Using precise language is important, especially when it comes to legal issues, because certain words and phrases have legal definitions. But even within law, there’s a movement towards plain English. It’s possible to write contracts without sounding pompous or confusing (Just read Google’s Privacy Policy for an example. Not a “heretofore” or “therewith” in the entire document.)

Companies and organizations can create a list of “Words We Don’t Use.” This can be a stand-alone document (with everyone in the company contributing ideas and alternate suggestions) or part of your brand messaging guidelines.

If you’re an individual and you’re having trouble de-jargoning a document or concept, try this: How would an eight-year-old explain it to you? Or Pee-Wee Herman? Oprah? Neil Tyson? Playing around with different perspectives can help you break through the jargon rut.

Do you have other techniques for countering jargon? If so, please share your ideas in the comments.

© 2014 Sarah Chauncey 

 

 

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