Jargon Is Not Your Natural Voice
Most of my work with clients comes down to this: I try to help them sound like human beings.
Don’t get me wrong—my clients aren’t cyborgs! But whether it’s a speech, an op-ed, or a long-form essay, the first draft always ends up sounding slightly less than human. It’s like hearing music underwater: You can tell there’s a melody, but it’s muffled and indistinct.
The problem is jargon. Jargon is the language of experts. Trouble is, jargon seduces people who want to sound like experts. Or they’re expressing a simple thought and trying to make it sound profound. Either way, jargon is often tortured language, where verbs are turned into nouns (e.g., “learnings”) and nouns into verbs (e.g., “projectize”). It has a know-it-all quality that people either distrust, dislike, or fear.
But jargon is sometimes necessary—it can be the linguistic equivalent of a lab coat or a judge’s black robe. It wraps a person in seriousness, exactitude, and professionalism. Experts do need touchstones of language to express key ideas and principles in shorthand. If you don’t use certain specialized language in certain contexts, not only do you sound like a simpleton, but you also may not express yourself well. And let’s face it, experts do think in expert language, at a level that is not so easy for everyone to understand.
In the sciences and the law, they came up with a beautiful way to deal with the need for specialized language and phrases: They used Latin! Sadly, that’s not much of an option in the worlds of our digital economy, regulatory policy, and other factories of jargon.
So how do we solve the problem?
- Avoid using jargon unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you use jargon to dress up a sentence, you either are overdoing it or your core sentence is underdoing it. Either way, jargon isn’t going to solve the problem of bad writing.
- Define your jargon. If you must use jargon, put parentheses immediately afterwards with the definition and meaning of your language. So if you write: “We provide optimized solutions to help our clients leverage their innovation assets,” consider adding in this parenthetical explainer: “We help our clients get the most out of what they currently spend to develop new products and services.” If the parenthetical phrase is better than the original, drop the original.
- Put it through the “Aunt Millie” test. Would your favorite elderly relative recognize an idea in your jargon-filled sentence? My Aunt Millie was a librarian and is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But if I ever tried to get some jargon-laden phrase past her, she’d snatch it out of the air and step on it like a bug. So whenever I write a sentence that feels like it’s drifting into jargon-land, I always summon up Aunt Millie and she swats it out of the air.
- Count the syllables. There’s a great rule of thumb for eating healthfully: if you can’t pronounce the ingredients in your food, you probably shouldn’t eat it. Same goes for writing: If you can’t read a word effortlessly, or a whole sentence without taking a breath, it’s a good bet that jargon is the culprit.
- Google your jargon. If your favorite jargon-y phrase doesn’t have a relatively well-understood and distinct meaning within your field of influence, it’s not jargon, it’s sugary emptiness. Remember: Some of your readers will do exactly this when they encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase. Be certain they find what you intended.
Ultimately, the best way to deal with jargon is to recognize that it’s not our natural voice. That means that every time we use jargon, we get away from the most approachable writing—simple, clear and familiar.