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Beware the trap of trying to sound fancy. Using big words or phrases that you think make you sound impressive is more likely to dilute the message you're trying to convey.
Have you ever opened a company’s website and read for a few seconds, then wondered, “What do these people actually do?” Workplace jargon is everywhere. We hear it every day and we probably use it every day. But we tend to forget that we’ve each built up subject matter expertise in our own areas of business, and that other people might not necessarily share this knowledge. Getting rid of the jargon can improve communications with your clients, your colleagues, your suppliers and even the people you report to.
Take this before and after example from the Plain Language Campaign:
Before: High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.
After: Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.
The first version is difficult to understand, long-winded and dull enough that your brain might stop paying attention halfway through the sentence. The improved version is shorter, sharper and makes the meaning clearer. That is, after all, the point of communication – to convey information. Jargon can get in the way of doing this.
The issue is that what’s jargon to me might make perfect sense to you, and vice versa. This type of “technical jargon” is subject-specific and it’s vital for communication within industries or departments, where everyone will understand the terminology. For example, at a fintech conference, you might hear terms like PSD2, GDPR, open banking, API, platform business and insurtech being bandied about. In a room full of doctors, you might hear terms like bradycardic, contusion, cellulitis, diuresis and hypoxia.
Both these sets of words will make perfect sense to their intended audiences, but people outside that category are likely to feel a bit lost.
As Instructional Solutions notes, “The only way to know if a term is jargon or not is to put yourself in the shoes of your audience. How well does your reader understand the document topic? An executive in your company is likely familiar with company-wide acronyms. Conversely, a client might be confused by the same acronym.”
How to cut jargon out
When you’re speaking or writing, be sure to think about who your audience is. Take the time to explain any terms or acronyms you think may be unfamiliar (or better yet, leave them out and use a plain language alternative if you can). If you think a term is too complex to explain, it’s probably too complex to use.
Beware the trap of trying to sound fancy. Using big words or phrases that you think make you sound impressive are more likely to dilute the message you’re trying to convey.
You can also make your communications more effective by stripping away unnecessary business buzzwords and phrases, which are normally meaningless. “Let’s put a pin in this and circle back to it later” can easily be replaced with, “Let’s revisit this later.”
One word of caution: in seeking to eliminate jargon, don’t veer too hard in the opposite direction, which can result in patronising communication that treats the audience like young children. Again – think about who you are addressing, and use an appropriate tone, style and level of vocabulary to match.
Financial sector jargon
Jargon is prolific in the financial services sector and it’s easy to become blind to how much we use it. One easy check when working on messages for someone outside of your immediate team is to think about whether the email or presentation in question would be something a friend or family member (who’s not in your industry) could understand. How would you explain this, across the dinner table? I believe in using real language, because we’re communicating with real people.
If you need any help with plain language explanations of financial terms, the Plain Language Campaign’s “The A to Z of financial terms” is a useful reference (although bear in mind that some terms listed here are specific to the UK).
If you’re still unsure whether you’re managing to ditch the jargon or not, don’t be afraid to ask. Checking in with a client or your boss on whether your message made sense to them will not only help you to craft better communications, but it shows that you’re working on it. People are generally happy to help if you make it clear that your intention is to provide them with better communication.
F.R. (Rhys) Robinson, PhD is Executive Director, Infinitus Reporting Solutions (Pty) Ltd, provider of enterprise-wide consolidation, planning and reporting solutions.