Redefine the way you define terms

5 ways to rethink definitions

When I was customizing an in-house writing workshop for a utility company, I wanted to see whether there was a better way to define kilowatt hour, or kWh, for consumers.

Rethink definitions: define unfamiliar terms

Go beyond Definition 101 There’s nothing magic about unfamiliar term, familiar term. In fact, that approach may be getting between you and your audience members. Image by Josh Felise

I knew that a kWh was the work performed by one kilowatt of electric power in one hour and that it was the basic measure of electric energy use.

So I Googled “define: kWh.”

That’s the first way to redefine the way you define terms: Google clearer definitions.

1. Turn Google into a dictionary.

Turns out your BFF and research assistant Google is also a rock-star dictionary.

Just type “define: term” in the search box. You’ll get a list of definitions for your term on the web.

Google clearer definitions When my writing team was working on a story about a father and daughter who had cochlear implants and were able to hear each other say, “I love you,” for the first time, I turned to Google for a an appropriately colloquial definition …

… It displayed dozens of definitions, including this analogy from Wikipedia: “The cochlear implant is often referred to as a bionic ear.” …

Our definition: “Think of a cochlear implant as a bionic ear.”

When it came to my search for a fresh way to define kilowatt hour, as you might expect, many of the definitions weren’t very helpful. “One kilowatt hour = 3412 Btu Per hour,” for instance, didn’t move the definition forward. Nor did “The equivalent of 3,600,000 Joules.”

But I did find one helpful image: “A 100-watt lightbulb burning for 10 hours uses one kilowatt hour.”

Add an image like that to your definition, and you can paint a picture in your readers’ minds, helping them to literally “see” the technical concept.

2. Lead with the familiar term.

The traditional way for defining terms can seem patronizing and off-putting:

Unfamiliar term, familiar term,

Here’s how it works:

cyclooxygenase-1, an enzyme that’s normally present in various areas of the body,

That’s not the friendliest approach. It suggests, “Term A, which you, being a nitwit, apparently don’t understand, means term B.”

Instead, think like a reader. Bring the reader in with the term she already knows:

Familiar term, unfamiliar term,

This is a little more accessible, suggesting, “Term B, which, by the way, we geeks in accounting call term A …” Like this:

Cox-1 of the stomach produces “chemical messengers” called prostaglandins.

Here, I get “chemical messengers.” But when I see “prostaglandins” bearing down on me without warning at the beginning of the sentence, I start thinking, “I don’t want to work this hard to get this.”

When you’re writing to people who don’t need to learn your organization’s language, drop the unfamiliar term altogether:

Familiar term, unfamiliar term 

Do I really need to learn “prostaglandins” to do business with your organization? If not:

Cox-1 of the stomach produces “chemical messengers” called prostaglandins.

3. Take 4 steps to explaining, not just defining.

If you’re really trying to help people learn a new term, add a few more elements to your definition, suggests Jack Hart, author of A Writer’s Coach. Define the unfamiliar word in terms of:

  1. the larger class to which it belongs
  2. the way it’s different from other members of the class
  3. an illustration or description

He writes:

“A jack, for example, is (a) a salmon that (b) returns to fresh water a year before it’s sexually mature and (c) looks like an adult but is much smaller.”

4. Explain, don’t just spell out, acronyms.

Don’t just spell out acronyms, as Alex Bloomberg illustrated in The Giant Pool of Money — still, all of these years later, one of the best explainers ever:

“The thing that got me interested in all this was something called a NINA loan. [A] NINA loan stands for No Income, No Assets …”

Instead, explain them:

“… as in, someone will lend you a bunch of money without first checking if you have any income or any assets.”

Then illustrate them:

“For example, a guy I met named Clarence Nathan. He worked three part-time, not very steady jobs, and made a total of roughly $45,000 a year. He got himself into trouble and needed money, so he took out a loan against his house. A big one.

Clarence Nathan: “Call it $540,000 for round figures.”

Alex Blumberg: “Would you have loaned you the money?

Clarence Nathan: “I wouldn’t have loaned me the money. And nobody that I know would have loaned me the money. I know guys who are criminals who wouldn’t loan me that, and they break your kneecaps. I don’t know why the bank did it. I’m serious … $540,000 to a person with bad credit.”

Hey, now I know what NINA loans are.

Warren Buffett also knows how to illustrate and acronym.

  • Start making sense

    Get the gobbledygook, jargon and gibberish out

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

    Start making sense in New York

    Indeed, jargon irritates your reader, makes your message less understandable, reduces your social media reach and influence, cuts your chances of media coverage, makes your website harder to find and demonstrates your lack of knowledge about the topic. It may even suggest that your company is in trouble.

    Translate the language of your organization into the language of your readers.

    At Cut Through the Clutter — our two-day hands-on clear-writing master class on April 17-18 in New York — you’ll learn how to avoid these obstacles by translating the language of your organization into the language of your readers. You’ll find out how to:

    • Determine when to use jargon to streamline communication — and when to avoid it at all costs.
    • Run a simple test to decide which terms to use with industry insiders.
    • Turn Google into the best thesaurus ever.
    • Define terms the reader-friendly way (Hint: It’s not the way we learned to do it in Journalism 101.)
    • Steal techniques from Warren Buffett to make complex technical information easier to understand — and more fun to read.

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