Jargon: The Perks and Perils

jargonA crucial part of a company’s culture is based on communication: the example set by leadership and how communication is fostered. In fact, try and find a job description that doesn’t list “strong communication skills” as a requirement.

So why is the corporate world—and especially the digital marketing world—such a quagmire of hazy and nebulous messages?

Jargon gets a bad rap for good reason: it often masks clarity. Just take a look at the official definition of the word; it’s quite an incoherent mouthful. One definition is essentially “language mutually understood by a group” while another definition means “confused, unintelligible language.”

Jargon can be necessary—even important—because of its specific and timesaving nature. Philosopher Étienne Bonnot de Condillac observed all the way back in 1782 that “every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas.”

Here’s a quick example of the different types of “special language” a team engaged in the “science” of web design and development might use:

Project Manager: “We’re still in the discovery phase, but right now we know we’ll need three interactives in the final deliverable.”

UX Architect: “The primary updates to the wireframes are to rid the existing site of style decisions that conflict with RWD best practices.”

Developer: “You can set up the master grid using @media un-nested, but we’ll still need to make some small adjustments.”

Designer: “Does the client have the web license for their serif font?”

Copywriter: “Are we providing brand tone direction or just migrating existing content?“

So it can be a form of precise and useful communication—as long as all parties are using the same jargon, within the same discipline. But jargon can also be a gatekeeping device (think: teenagers using slang to keep adults from knowing what’s up). In the work world, this can serve as a barrier to contribution, even if jargon isn’t used that way consciously. Associates who are confused by jargon might hesitate to speak up or end up focusing on the wrong issue.

Sometimes, however, jargon speak is simply meaningless nonsense. Which is destructive to the kind of clear communication that presents your company as a thought leader and that supports employees in exercising their abilities to the fullest. So how can we, who are all communicators regardless of our role, get it right?

Here are just a few tips to help you guard against muddying your communication:

Budget your five-dollar words.
Clear communication is targeted for your audience. Cast a wide enough net that none of your readers will require a dictionary to understand your message, and no listeners will need to conduct a covert Google search to catch your drift. If your default is to use larger- or rarer-than-necessary words, use a thesaurus to find an abridged alternative. And here’s a simple website to help identify unnecessarily elite word choices.

Note bad examples. Learn from them.
This is not a call to police others’ grammar. No one likes that person, and it’s rarely constructive. However, when you recognize icky, ambiguous or even misleading language, make a mental note. Then lead by example.

Search for overused words.
This is especially important in written communication. Sometimes we become attached to a word that seems to efficiently capture our intentions. But overusing a word that’s uncommon in everyday speech can be a distraction. There are technical approaches to solving this problem: you can create a concordance or word cloud to show how often particular words are used. But you don’t have to get that fancy: When in doubt, read your piece aloud or have a friend look at it.

Eradicate clichés.
This isn’t your first time at the rodeo. You know that sex sells, and you know to measure twice and cut once. It’s not so hard since you’re picking low-hanging fruit. Or maybe writing an article feels like going through hell, but you’ve got your eye on the prize. Sure, maybe there are too many cooks in the kitchen, but it’s time to drink the Kool-Aid so you don’t get thrown under the bus.

A smart, well-placed analogy or metaphor can transform a foreign and complex idea into an easily understood one, but overly common metaphors and idioms return little but white noise. These phrases get used so often that they become meaningless.

Use jargon for efficiency and efficiency alone.
Jargon, when understood by everyone involved, can replace an entire sentence with a single word.

When in doubt, send your writing through Unsuck-it.com to ensure you’re offering your audience more than an artisanal ecosystem that’s just a high-level overview of the microcopy concise language that clearly highlights key facts.


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