September 25, 2017

Start making sense

Convince reviewers to abandon jargon

Richard Teerlink, chairman of Harley-Davidson, stands in front of a screen showing a bicep emblazoned with his company’s logo.

Start making sense

What’s wrong with this picture? We don’t call them tattoos any more. Now they’re “dermatological graphics.” Image by Stlukesguild1

“We don’t call them tattoos any more,” he told his audience. Instead, he said, they are now “dermatological graphics.”

Of course you don’t, Mr. Teerlink.

Just like we don’t call it a company, talking, hiring consultants or coming up with ideas any more. Now they’re the enterprise, interfacing, utilizing change agents and ideation.

Jargon. Buzzwords. Acronyms. They’re things that make your reader go “huh?” And we need to get them out of our copy.

But you know that.

For many communicators, the biggest obstacle to writing clearly isn’t that they don’t know how to get the gobbledygook out. It’s that their approvers love the gobbledygook.

So here’s a list of reasons to avoid jargon. Use it to convince your most incomprehensible colleagues that jargon not only hinders communication, it also hurts business.


1. Makes your website harder to find and use.

If you use technical terms online, searchers may have trouble finding your site.

For instance, searchers use the “wrong” medical term 59% of the time when researching health issues on the Web, according to a study by Alexa T. McCray, et al.

Readers don’t search for medical terms
Instead of …… they’ll use
Multiple myelomaBlood cancer
DiabetesSugar diabetes
Myocardial infarctionHeart attack

As a result, these searchers are missing lots of pages — maybe even yours — that actually do include the information they seek.

Whether you’re in the medical, money-management or mobile home business, translate your industry’s language into your reader’s language. Because if you don’t use the words in your readers’ heads, they won’t be able to find you.

2. Reduces media coverage.

Jargon makes it harder for the media to use your PR materials. Most Canadian journalists, for instance, believe that press releases filled with jargon frequently “get in the way” of their doing their jobs, according to a study by National Public Relations.

But don’t take their word for it. The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten’s not crazy about jargon, either:

“From time to time, I am cruelly slandered by members of the public relations industry, who accuse me of writing unfairly about their profession. Nothing could be further from the truth. I love PR professionals. They’re a hoot, because they are such pathetic, desperate dillweeds. I am right now looking at something called Your Market Wire Newsletter, a package of financial ‘news’ that arrives, unbidden, in journalists’ inboxes every week. It is filled with incomprehensibly written press releases on subjects of even less interest than can be found in a non-interest-bearing fiduciary debenture with negative yield. That’s exactly how these releases read, only they are less scintillating and more crammed with jargon. One word never suffices when 16 can do the job; big, important-sounding words are better than small, clear ones. Plans are ‘initiatives.’ They are not begun; they are ‘implemented.’ These releases could sedate an enraged rhinoceros.”

3. Cuts back on friends, fans and followers.

Facebook users don’t like jargon and buzzwords, according to viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella. Using data from HubSpot’s Facebook Grader, Zarrella found that while the average Facebook page has 624 fans, those that use corporate buzzwords have fewer followers.

Don’t repel friends, fans and followers: Write social media postings in the language of those you wish to reach.

4. Makes readers work harder.

When Jim Evans joined Jenny Craig as CEO, even he couldn’t understand the acronyms.

“There were too many for me to decipher, and only those who had been on board for at least a few years could understand them all,” he said.

When people can’t interpret the language of the organization:

  • Employees misunderstand instructions
  • Newbies have a longer learning curve
  • Culturally and geographically diverse team members can’t comprehend what their colleagues are saying.

Your audience may eventually figure out what you’re saying. But isn’t it your job to translate jargon so your reader doesn’t have to?

5. Makes ideas harder to “see.”

“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I am not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
— Irish editor

We say “I see” to mean “I understand.” Help readers “see” your point by translating jargon into visual language.

We see a tattoo, for instance. We don’t see a “dermatalogical graphic.”

Poet William Carlos Williams counseled writers to “turn ideas into things.” Jargon turns things into a wall of words.

6. Suggests poor performance.

There may be a link between jargon and poor business performance, according to a study by Deloitte Consulting. In one test, Enron’s language in SEC documents got more and more obscure as the company got deeper and deeper into trouble.

“We think that’s a good indicator of the linkage between clear and straight communications and business performance, including the issue of transparency and trust,” Deloitte Consulting partner Brian Fugere told Reuters.

No wonder The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and others have begun reporting readability of SEC documents in the financial pages. And the Chicago Sun-Times recently quoted this internal Chevron memo:

“This position & objectives are a new addition to the stable of existing Global Lubricant Solutions (GLS) functions. The role participates in the development of the ChevronTexaco Global Lubricants Innovation Solutions Vision and drives cultural change with associated front-end strategies and concepts that eventually become customer-facing differentiable Integrated Solutions. …”

Reporter Zay N. Smith’s response: “Sell your Chevron stock. Sell it now.”

7. Demonstrates your ignorance.

“While intelligent people can often simplify the complex, a fool is more likely to complicate the simple.”
— Henry David Thoreau, American author and philosopher

When people don’t understand information, they tend to go more with the original, often too-technical and undigested information from a primary source, says Neita F. Geilker, Ph.D., aka The Grammar Guru. A writer who really understands the information can translate it accurately into lay language.

Joseph M. Williams agrees. He writes in Style: Toward Clarity and Grace:

“As a novice in a field reads its professional prose, he will predictably try to imitate those features of style that seem most prominently to bespeak membership, professional authority. … Simultaneously, if a writer new to a field does not entirely control his ideas, his own prose will often slip into a style characterized by those same clumps of abstraction.”

So you think big words make you look intelligent? Think again.

8. Causes buzzword backlash.

People are livid about the amount of jargon and buzzwords writers use these days.

  • You’ve seen the Dilbert cartoons where the staff plays buzzword bingo against the pointy-haired boss.
  • You’ve visited Buzzkiller, the website that posts and pokes fun at buzzword-packed press releases.
  • You’ve heard journalists and bloggers rant against press releases that are so discombobulating that even beat reporters can’t follow them. (As the Public Relations Society of America’s national writing coach, I sometimes have the dubious honor of responding to calls from those irate reporters.)

In this environment, it’s never been more important to translate the language of our organizations into the language of our readers.

  • Cut Through the Clutter

    Is your copy easy to read? According to communication experts, that’s one of the two key questions people ask to determine whether to read a piece — or toss it.

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    Cut Through the Clutter - Ann Wylie's concise writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New YorkAt Cut Through the Clutter — a two-day concise-writing master class on April 17-18, 2018 in New York — you’ll learn “the numbers” you need to measurably improve your copy’s readability.

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Sources: “Abolish the acronyms!” Ragan Report, July 19, 2004

“What the Media Want,” National Public Relations, 2001

Gene Weingarten, “Read It and Lacrimate,” The Washington Post, May 20, 2007

Grant McCool, “Software to Cut the Bull from Corporate-Speak,” Reuters, June 20, 2003

T.J. Larkin and Sandar Larkin, “Health on the Web: Finding the Right Word,” Larkin Page, #33, March 2006

Alexa T. McCray, Russell F. Loane, Allen C. Browne and Anantha K. Bangalore; “Terminology Issues in User Access to Web-based Medical Information,” Proceedings of the AMIA Symposium, 1999, p. 107-111

Timothy B. Patrick, Harpreet K. Monga, MaryEllen C. Sievert, Joan ton Hall and Daniel R. Longo; “Evaluation of Controlled Vocabulary Resources for Development of a Consumer Entry Vocabulary for Diabetes,” Journal of Medical Internet Research, vol. 3, no. 3, 2001

E.B. Lerner, D.V. Jehle, D.M. Janicke and R.M. Moscati; “Medical Communication: Do our Patients Understand?” American Journal of Emergency Medicine, vol. 18, no. 7, November 2000, p. 764-766

Qing T. Zeng and Tony Tse, “Exploring and Developing Consumer Health Vocabularies,” Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, vol. 13, no. 1, Jan/Feb 2006, p. 24-29.

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