Don’t let jargon obscure your ideas

A constant struggle in business communications is avoiding jargon. Many readers may not be able to define exactly what jargon is, but much like the Supreme Court and obscenity, they know it when they see it. (For the record, Webster’s defines jargon as “confused unintelligible language” or “obscure and often pretentious language marked by circumlocutions and long words.” Well put.)

It’s particularly tempting to fall back on jargon when discussing information technology, software, data and analysis, and the like. If you’ve ever read a white paper that piles up buzzwords in paragraph after paragraph, you’re well acquainted with this morass. Here’s a passage from a white paper I turned up in a random search:

Organizations that are ready to advance to a unified, consumption-centered approach will be most successful when they adopt a comprehensive information management strategy and map out a plan for improvements that are both phased and continuous.

There’s a good idea lurking in there somewhere, but it’s not easy to find. Wake me when it’s over.

It’s worth noting the difference between “jargon” and “industry terminology.” The latter includes words that are specific to a product or function. For instance, if you’re talking about transportation and logistics, you’d be remiss if you didn’t talk about “global supply chains” or “RFID technology.” But those are real things, not made-up words or terms. That’s a big difference.

And despite the technical nature of certain industries, the basic goals—increase revenues, become more efficient, invest strategically, communicate value to potential customers—are common and can be conveyed in clear language that a general business audience can understand.

Some business leaders are quick to embrace words that convey the significance of a concept in a new, distinctive way. For instance, how many “paradigm shifts” are really possible from a business trend? The unfortunate consequence is that once enough people jump on the bandwagon, the term is no longer new or distinctive. Instead, it becomes accepted as a kind of vague shorthand: people may have forgotten the meaning, but the very use of the term functions as a password to gain entrance into the club.

Instead, stick to the clear, information-loaded sentence. Choose your words carefully, and trust in the value of precise diction. Your audience won’t become frustrated, you’ll gain points for being concise, and your message may actually permeate the clamor of information overload.

And as you venture forth, keep an eye out for anyone promising to help you “leverage new synergies.” If they can’t explain what they plan to do in basic language, it’s best to look for someone who can.

Scott Leff

Scott is the founder of LEFF. He’s spent his career helping executives and subject matter experts tell their story in a compelling way. In the process, he’s had the opportunity to work with C-suite executives, politicians, academics, and Olympians, not to mention dozens of talented writers, editors, and designers in the business world. Scott developed the concept of “lean content creation” as a cost-effective way to support comprehensive, integrated communication strategies.

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