Industry jargon can imbue communications with clarity and precision, particularly in scientific or technical fields such as medicine, for very specific audiences in very specific contexts such as journal publications or congresses. Complex and important concepts in these fields actually require their own language, otherwise simple words strung together will produce simplistic and even inaccurate explanations that may have life-or-death consequences. A good example is the International Classification of Diseases, or ICD, that provides a standard lexicon enabling our entire healthcare system to communicate, diagnose, treat, and gain reimbursement across an incredible array of human maladies.
Jargon is often used to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.”
Yet in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell argued the opposite: that obscure and complex language like jargon is often used to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In healthcare, we often find that doctors speak one language (hypertension), and patients speak another (high blood pressure).
So, which is it? Is jargon a blessing, a curse, or both? Let’s consider a few downsides to an over-reliance on jargon, and some ways to provide clarity while broadening your audience beyond a small group of experts.
Jargon Excludes Newbies & Outsiders
In this age of inclusion, jargon poses a barrier to entry to those not already in the ‘club.’ Like a secret handshake, it’s an outdated way to maintain the status quo by ensuring that members are ‘worthy’ or ‘smart’ enough to enjoy the benefits of understanding what the hell is going on. A recent article, “Reducing Jargon Will Make Financial Information More Accessible to All,” recommends the creation of “an agreed glossary for everyone in the financial capability sector to use, to help make messages around money clear and motivating.” Which is to say, ‘We all need to stop confusing our customers.’
Jargon Reduces Citations
Another relatively recent article, “Want Other Scientists to Cite You? Drop the Jargon,” reviewed the results of a study that found that “the most highly cited papers didn’t use any terms specific to [this particular area of] science in the title and kept jargon to less than 2% of the text in the abstract; jargon-heavy papers were cited far less often.” The journal editor who published the article went so far as to say, “I think this would be a universal finding,” yet it’s unlikely that scientists and science writers will abandon their current love and use of jargon so easily.
Jargon Costs Companies Money
Perhaps the most important reason to reduce jargon in communications is simply because it is costing your company money. The new book, Business Blather: Stop Using Words That Sound Good But Say Nothing! “targets companies who think their pretentious, jargon-filled communications are enlightening audiences, when the exact opposite is true.” The author cites a study by PRovoke Media that “estimates companies lose $37B annually to poor communications,” however the number is likely much higher when we consider the massive amounts of internal communications, marketing materials, corporate and scientific communications, and investor relations that overuse jargon when trying to inform or influence their most important stakeholders.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Finally, Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So, here are some simple ways to soften the often-hard edge created by jargon:
- Understand who is in your audience, and use words that the majority will understand
- Explain any jargon-y terms in simple language when first used, like a just-in-time glossary of terms for your audience
- Use pictures to explain concepts, processes, relationships, and other ideas that are usually communicated primarily through words that include jargon
Author: Joe Shields
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