The Only Time Jargon Works


A few weeks ago I spoke to a group of job-seeking professionals about how to market themselves. One bit of advice I gave them is to avoid jargon in their written and spoken communications.

Afterward, one of the participants challenged me on that point. “I’m a tax accountant,” he said. “If I don’t use tax lingo with my peers, they won’t know what I’m talking about.”

That, my friends, is the only time it is appropriate to use jargon: when its absence would reduce clarity and understanding among your audience.

As I said to the tax accountant, my work is all about helping people and organizations communicate clearly. One of the greatest barriers to clear communication is the use of jargon. Ninety-nine percent of the time, jargon gets in the way of effective communication. And there is a more insidious side to jargon, too. Often, people use it in order to purposely obfuscate.

Once while preparing a presentation to a group of marketers about writing clear copy, I used this example from a website. The name has been changed to protect the guilty:

XYZ is a unique, patented software solution that addresses the problem of organizational disconnectedness. By automatically understanding enterprise activity in real time, XYZ enables employees throughout the organization to connect with one another on key topics and speeds the organization’s ability to solve problems and address issues.

That’s a lot of words to say this company’s software helps people talk about the stuff they need to talk about. There’s really not a lot of “there” there, so the copywriter used big words to cover that fact up. The message is not clear and not easily understood — but it sure sounds impressive.

Instead of relying on jargon to get your point across, think about these things before you write:

  • How would you say it to a neighbor at a backyard barbecue?
  • Does it really pass the “smell” test? Could you speak those words without cracking up?
  • What are you trying to hide by using big words and long sentences? An unclear message? A weak argument? Lack of confidence in what you’re saying?
  • Would people really get the point without you having to explain it to them?
  • Are you just trying to impress someone by using jargon? And if so, why?

If you eliminate jargon, people will easily understand what you’re trying to say and they’ll have a lot more respect for you (or your organization) for saying it clearly.

But, hey, if you work with a bunch of tax accountants and they know what the jargon means, go for it.

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2 Responses

  1. Excellent point, except . . .

    I once gave a presentation on presentation skills to a group of Physician Assistant students. I knew they were never going to listen to someone from outside the medical field. Why would they?

    So, I opened with an anecdote about the research on interstitial glucose monitoring. I could see them move forward in their seats and start paying attention. They weren’t sure if I was a colleague or not.

    Overall, I completely agree that jargon should be left out. However, you can use jargon to blur the line between in-group and out-group to build your credibility.

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