Ditching the jargon is all very well, but make sure people know what to put in its place, says Nick Parker from The Writer
At The Writer, we spend most of our days wrestling with jargon in one form or another – from vapid corporate-speak and pompous legalese, to incomprehensible quango-babble, we’ve had to decipher it all. We’ve also helped companies tackle it – usually by helping them create writing guidelines, and training their people to be more effective writers.
When we run workshops, we often do a bit of ‘jargon therapy’ – getting people to shout out jargon words or phrases that particularly annoy them. It’s fair to say, most people are really annoyed. The flip chart quickly fills with words people despise, yet find themselves using every day. (Particular hate-phrase of the moment is ‘speak to’, as in ‘Bob will speak to the theme of innovation’. When did Bob stop speaking about innovation?)
Yet interestingly, although everyone proclaims to hate jargon, nobody can agree where it comes from. In one recent workshop, I had people from the shop floor claiming that it was ‘dumped on them from above’, and people from the board saying it ‘bubbled up from below’.
And ironically the word ‘jargon’ itself is often bandied about loosely, as a bit of jargon itself – which is one of the reasons you can end up in an interminable argument about whether jargon is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, or whether cutting it out equates with ‘dumbing down’.
People are muddying the waters between two types of ‘jargon’. On the one hand there’s the ‘technical argot’ of an industry or sector – the terms that have clear and specific meanings within a certain group. Lawyers know what ‘without prejudice’ means; government working parties have ‘stakeholders’; rock climbers will warn each other of ‘chossy’ ground. All this is fine between consenting adults – between people who understand the term, writing ‘stakeholder’ is easier than writing ‘people who are involved in a project or who are interested in how it turns out’. But it’ll need translating for lay readers.
And on the other hand, there’s the fog of buzzwords, euphemisms and trendy terms that broadly make up ‘corporate-speak or populate Boardroom Bingo cards: ‘zero people intensity’, ‘leverage’ and so on. This kind of nonsense is the stuff to avoid – it tends to make meaning less clear (does ‘going forward’ mean ‘in future’, ‘from now on’, or both?) and all too often it’s used to show off, intimidate, or hide the fact the writer doesn’t really know what they’re talking about.
So, now we know our enemy, what can we do about it? Here are four practical things:
1. Ask the stupid question
If someone spouts a load of jargon at you, ask them to clarify what they really mean. In meetings, this is always powerful. Usually, everyone else is wondering what the hell they’re on about too.
2. Make it socially unacceptable
We’ve worked with teams who’ve started ‘jargon swear boxes’, stuck particularly hideous examples on a ‘wall of shame’, or started their own Buzzword Bingo cards. Anything that helps you become self-aware about any jargon that you or your team might use unthinkingly.
3. Find out where jargon lurks – and kill it
Often, nasty bits of jargon live in places we forget to look – in templates, boilerplate copy, briefing documents, brochures or web pages that we send out or refer to every day. It’s easy to become blind to it when you’ve seen it a thousand times before. Yet if people read it in what you send them, they’ll often ‘mirror’ it back to you. Rewrite this stuff so it’s jargon free.
4. Focus on what you do want, not what you don’t
While it’s great to go on a jargon purge, the truth is that focusing on the communication style you do want is much more powerful in the long-run than getting hung up on what you don’t want. So, if there are concepts that you find tricky to explain without reaching for a jargon term, put the effort into working on a description you’re happy with. Consider defining your brand’s language style or tone of voice. And then use it all the time.