Don’t hit your head on the low-hanging fruit: The unending battle against jargon

As a business reporter, I once had a public relations person give me a jargon-filled pitch on a new software product that left me clueless as to just what the product did. I told him I’d be happy to consider writing about it if he could explain it to me in plain English. He hemmed, hawed, and said he’d get back to me. He never did. Fail.

I’m sure the PR person got jargon-riddled talking points from his software-maker client and either wouldn’t—or couldn’t—ask for a more straightforward explanation of the product. The result was a client poorly served, because the jargon confused their message.

Whether it’s the bleeding edges, low-hanging fruits, value-adds, deliverables, or oh-so-many other examples, business loves its jargon. But, while jargon might get a pass in the conference room, it can be deadly in your content. From a content marketing perspective, jargon can be fatal to what you’re trying to accomplish—especially if you’re hiding behind jargon to conceal a lack of understanding of the subject.

Business insiders typically understand what they mean when they use jargon. You might too. But letting that jargon creep into your content can exclude portions of your audience who don’t understand it—such as potential clients. It’s tempting to think that using jargon can make us sound smarter or distinctive. Unfortunately, it’s actually more likely to cloud your message. You can almost always find a better, clearer way to make your point.

Often, people confuse industry terminology and jargon. Industry terminology might have a necessary place in your writing, particularly if your business is a technical one (though you might want to define your terms, depending on your audience). But jargon and buzzwords are another beast, serving only to confuse rather than define or clarify.

In a Knowledge@Wharton podcast, James Sudakow, author of the book Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit. . . And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, suggests that some business jargon probably begins with the somewhat worthy goal of trying to stand out in a crowded world. The irony, he notes, is that “If we all just sat down and said, ‘Let me just try to talk about this in a normal way, the way I would talk to anybody else,’ we might actually be able to communicate better.” There’s no doubt about it.

Sudakow also suggests that jargon can become a habit, rubbing off even on those who try to avoid it. From my years as a reporter talking to lawyers, insurers, bankers, and others—each with their own jargon—I know that to be true. As I interviewed people in various industries I often found their jargon insidious, slipping into my own writing if I wasn’t careful. You’ve got to be ever vigilant and make a conscious effort to keep jargon out of your communications. It also helps to have a good editor who can provide an additional line of defense on jargon, calling you on it when it creeps into your content.

So next time you sit down to blue sky actionable content deliverables, think again. For your audience’s sake, and the sake of your message, avoid the jargon. Avoid the confusion.

Leave a Reply