Jargon – it’s the language we love to hate. We complain about encountering legal terms in packaging, or dense abstractions in academic journals. The term jargon brings a negative connotation of being pretentious and incomprehensible.
Yet the much-maligned jargon has its place. It saves us a great deal of time. Industry-specific terms are how we speak with our colleagues to get work done. Acronyms substitute for spelling out terms to people in our groups.
We’ll never rid our writing of industry jargon – nor would we want to.
The world is a complicated place, and language evolves to keep pace. We need ways of talking about abstract technologies like bitcoin, new business models like the Sharing Economy, or the latest regulations affecting our lives, like the European Union General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
These terms are valuable because they help us speak about ever-more-complicated abstractions. They convey meaning and save time.
Industry terminology also has a social context, which we may not realize when we use this language for mixed audiences.
Using jargon is a way of claiming insider status. And when you’re an insider, someone else becomes an outsider.
Claiming a Spot with the “In” Crowd
Sharing a vocabulary is one way we signal membership in a group.
- Groups of teenagers use the same slang when speaking to each other, but not to adults.
- Work colleagues use product code names, both to save time and to show that they’re part of a team.
- Conference attendees sling industry-specific terms to demonstrate their domain expertise.
But when we communicate with people outside our usual groups, those same words can exert an exclusionary force. If the reader isn’t familiar with the terms they encounter, they assume that they are not part of your audience. At some level, they feel like outsiders.
Is that the message you’re trying to communicate?
Unfortunately, we often forget what it’s like to not know our vocabulary. (That’s the Curse of Knowledge in action.) We don’t realize that these familiar, comfortable terms sound foreign to others.
For jargon, acronyms, and industry-specific terms, the audience is the judge of what works, not you.
Finding and Filtering Words that Shut People Out
Vocabulary filters your readers, so choose your words with care.
If you’re writing for an audience of colleagues who share the same background, or people on your own team, then you can enjoy the “inclusiveness” of using the same language. But if you wish to widen your reach, try filtering the industry-specific terminology and jargon in your writing.
First, find the jargon. This may be harder than you think.
Print something you’ve written, such as email, blog post, or article that you want to reach a broad audience. (Printing it out changes the format, helping you to see it with fresh eyes.)
Pick up a highlighter or pen and mark every acronym, industry-specific phrase, product code name, or other term that is specific to your industry and/or job.
For each of these highlighted terms, ask two questions:
- Is it necessary? If there are simpler ways to say the same thing just as easily, consider replacing it. If not, apply the second filter:
- Is it familiar to your entire audience? Readers who have only encountered the term once or twice will need to stop and think. Either define it the first time or make the context so clear that everyone can figure it out. Consider using an example to illustrate the meaning.
Bonus: Replacing abstractions with vivid examples or simpler words often makes the writing more interesting, even to those who are familiar with the terminology. Your colleagues may notice and thank you.
Give it a try.
(PS – If your job requires you to write about abstract ideas, check out my latest book, Writing to Be Understood. It has an entire chapter on writing about abstractions.)