Are you inadvertently wasting other people’s time when you speak or write? Here’s a cautionary tale for anyone who works in a field that uses acronyms, abbreviations, and other jargon.
“We had an NPS of 80.”
That comment came from a marketer on a panel discussion in a video. She was referring to Net Promoter Score—a metric of how willing customers are to recommend a business to others.
A few people commented on that score, and then the conversation moved on. I thought nothing of it, alas.
But here’s the thing—not everyone on the panel came from the world of marketing. Probably not everyone in the audience, either. The average person on the street has no reason to know or care about Net Promoter Score.
One of the panelists was mystified, but didn’t want to interrupt to clarify. As she told me later, “When you’re in the thick of it, you don’t like to ask, because you don’t like to look like an idiot.”
(We’ve all experienced that uncomfortable feeling when we don’t know something that others do.)
This woman (my new friend and ally in the jargon battle) is clearly diligent, because she set out to learn what the term meant.
Alas, she mis-heard the “N” as an “M.” So she searched for MPS after the call and found nothing that made sense for the context. (Meters per second? Minnesota Public Schools?)
Next she asked friends and colleagues—no one knew what MPS referred to.
She reached out to me, because I was on the panel and she didn’t remember who had mentioned it. She asked, “If you know what it is, would you mind enlightening me, so I don’t feel left out of the loop next time I hear it?”
Let’s recap here. She felt confused when she heard (misheard) the term. She spent time searching online, then consulting her colleagues, then crafting a message to me asking about the term.
How much time did the abbreviation save us in conversation? In contrast, how much time did she spend chasing down its meaning? And how about the cost of her feeling like an outsider?
Jargon may save you time, but at what cost?
The False Time Savings of Jargon
The word jargon refers to terminology known mostly to insiders in an industry. We use it for many reasons, including demonstrating our expertise or insider status in a group.
But we also use it to save time when communicating with colleagues. It’s faster to use abbreviations or acronyms than to spell things out. Academics use specific terms to be exceedingly precise when communicating with others.
When we use those terms with others outside of that specific domain, jargon quickly becomes a huge time sink—not for you, but for the people reading or listening to you.
If you are writing something that will go out into the world, or recording an interview, you cannot be sure who will listen. Even in the confines of your own workplace, you can alienate someone who is new at the job.
You might save a couple seconds by saying NPS instead of Net Promoter Score, but waste countless minutes of your listeners’ or readers’ time. They won’t appreciate it.
Respect the reader’s time by clarifying or eliminating industry terminology.
Alas, we are all subject to using jargon unknowingly. I am sure that I have done the same, unwittingly making people feel left out or uncertain.
What can we do about it?
First, recognize when we use it.
It’s tough detecting the jargon in our own words—that’s the curse of knowledge in action.
When we’re speaking live, as this panelist was, it’s difficult to catch.
When writing, however, we have a golden opportunity to protect the reader. It’s called revision.
Here are a few things to consider:
- Scan your work for acronyms, abbreviations, or other industry terms and either spell them out or define them the first time they appear.
- Use spelling/grammar checking software. If it coughs on a term, then that phrase is probably not familiar to all of your readers.
- Ask an editor or someone else to read your work and be ruthless about highlighting anything unfamiliar. (If you ask a colleague in the same line of work, they may not spot the jargon.)
Second, be an advocate for the listener when you hear someone else using a term that might be unfamiliar. (In the terminology of allyship, be a jargon upstander.)
When you hear someone else using jargon in a meeting or on a Zoom call, clarify it for anyone who may be left out.
You don’t have to call people out on using the term—you don’t want to embarrass the speaker, but to clarify for the listener. You can be subtle.
If it’s an acronym or abbreviation, spell it out. If it’s an industry term, use it in context. Consider doing both.
This story made me question—how many times have I made readers feel unwelcome or insecure by using terms thoughtlessly? How much of other people’s time have I wasted by not taking the time to revise or clarify?
I wish I registered the abbreviation on that call. If I had, I could have said something like, “Wow, that’s a really terrific Net Promoter Score. Did your company rely heavily on that metric to track customer loyalty?”
Hindsight is always better than foresight. Let’s all help each other.
Respect the reader’s time by taking a moment to clarify.
Read the post Why and How to Filter Your Jargon.
For advice on dealing with jargon in the workplace, see The Workplace Writer’s Process.
For the larger issue of writing about abstract topics, see Writing to Be Understood: What Works and Why.