Jargon can kill your message: here’s how to avoid it

Scrabble tiles arranged in a pyramid, spelling 'Discombobulated'

Does jargon drive you up the wall?

A classic example for many in business writing is managementspeak. The economics journalist, Robert Peston, has a particular kind of loathing for meaningless business jargon. Especially when it’s used to dress up situations which aren’t quite as nice as they might appear.

As he points out: ‘Downsizing = sacking people.  Achieving cost synergies = sacking people.’ And so on…

As a professional editor, I’m trained to be measured and ensure the writing I work with for authors both conveys what they want to say and is clear for all their lovely readers.

But in my own everyday life, when it gets in the way of trying to understand really important things, my patience becomes – how can I put this? – ever so slightly strained…

Example: I was at a pharmacy to pick up a prescription. After taking my name, the assistant said:

‘OK, let me just see if that’s been disbanded.’

I have no idea what that means. I wait. She comes back.

‘I’m afraid we can’t get hold of that, it’s not on our system, you could try elsewhere – I’ll have to stripe it.’

Still absolutely no idea. So I politely ask: ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re saying?’

‘I’ll have to stripe it so it can be sent back. Just wait here and I’ll do what’s necessary to process it.’

What’s happening now – the prescription was sent direct online from my health centre. Is she returning it there? She reemerges with the script and hands it to me.

It has a handwritten note on it: ‘striped’. I leave, completely confused.

When you’re writing for your own tribe, generally they will know what you mean. They have the same level of education and information, and use the same terminology in their own work, so it’s reasonably safe to assume that ‘terms of art’ – the specialist lexicon used in your sector – won’t go over their heads.

The problem with jargon comes into play when you’re communicating something outside of your tribe – especially to the general public.

Here, it’s key to avoid the ‘curse of knowledge‘, which is assuming your reader has the same level of understanding as you as the subject-matter expert.

In reality this might not be the case, so using jargon and failing to explain what it stands for is a no-no.

The solution is to put yourself in your readers’ shoes. Ask yourself:

  • What is my readers’ level of understanding – where should I pitch my text?
  • Will they be familiar with the terms I’m using?
  • What do I need to do to make sure my content is clear for them?

The safest course is to assume nothing and explain, otherwise your writing could leave them head-scratching. Worse still, jargon can irritate, exclude and even disengage them from your valuable input.

It’s counterproductive – works against your very laudable intention to help and inform your audience.

It also kills your message. The first rule of communication is clarity!

If you do need to use sector-specific terms for a lay audience, just be sure to define them at first mention so your readers can stay with you.

An audience doesn’t necessarily have to know specialist terms of art to access that kind of content – but if that is the case, the onus is on the author to actively clarify for them what it actually means.

If you’re unsure whether your content does translate or might be unclear, it’s always a good idea to get someone in your target audience to review it and give feedback.

This is key, because if you ask an industry colleague – especially someone who’s experienced – they can give you feedback on the expertise your content contains, but they’ll already know your industry lingo. They may fall into the curse of knowledge trap too… which isn’t the purpose of this exercise.

Beta reading is always a good thing to do whenever you’re publishing a book. If anything is confusing or unclear, your test readers can let you know. That’s a cue to go back and rework your text to make it crystal clear for publication.

For more superfast writing and editing tips, check out my handy mini-guides – they’re free!

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