Use the words in your reader’s head, not the words in your head
When Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about climate change for The New Yorker, she had to define terms like spectroradiometer and albedo. Read how elegantly she describes them:
I love learning the Latin ancestry of albedo and hearing the word albino in it!
Overcoming jargon isn’t just for audience members with a high school education. Note that even highly educated readers like New Yorker subscribers need to have terms described.
Here’s how to avoid jargon and other special terms and technical terms when writing to the general public and business-to-business or other audiences:
1. Define the term before using it.
New York Daily News editorial writers Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans earned a Pulitzer for their series on the declining health of 9/11 rescue workers.
In doing so, they came across unfamiliar medical jargon like interstitial lung disease. But before the writers even introduce that term, they describe how the disease works:
“Actually, DeBiase was on the verge of death. Inch by inch, his lungs were turning into scar tissue, slowly losing the ability to infuse his blood with oxygen and to cleanse it of carbon dioxide.”
2. Write about jargon.
Sometimes the best thing to do with jargon is to acknowledge it and make fun of it. That’s what the Daily News writers did in this passage from their Pulitzer-winning series:
I love the line “take a deep, deep breath.” In fact, I’m hoping to run into some jargon in my next article so I can steal it.
3. Use concrete examples.
So you think your subject is complex? Try taking on nanotechnology.
That’s the subject of “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom: An Invitation to Enter a New Field of Physics,” a classic speech by Richard Feynman, one of the most influential American physicists of the 20th century.
One of his techniques is to explain concepts using concrete examples from the audience’s own world: “Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?” Feynman asks.
4. Use familiar words.
Of the nearly 7,000 words in Feynman’s talk, my spell-checker tripped over only a handful. Most were people’s names. The others: demagnify, carotenoids and microsome. That’s .04 percent of the total number of words.
So use the words in your reader’s head, not the words in your head.
That will help with SEO as well as reader understanding.
“The very fact that a word is unexciting indicates that it’s frequently used,” writes usability guru Jakob Nielsen. “Often, a boring keyword is a known keyword.”
5. Use short words.
Feynman’s words averaged 4.4 characters each. Again: The topic is nanotechnology! How does your piece on the United Way fund drive or the CEO’s vision for the new year stack up?
6. Make reading easy.
Feynman’s piece weighs in at the 9th grade level according to the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level index. And it scores an amazing 62.5 percent on Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease index.
That makes Feynman’s piece is much easier to read than virtually all of the business communications I review.
7. Use the words in your readers’ heads.
Overcoming jargon will help you get readers to your content — and keep them there.
Use generics: If prospects know their problem, but not the name of your solution, what words will they likely search for? Use those terms as well as your product and service names.
After all, asks Barbara Krause, vice president of corporate communications at Krause Taylor & Associates, how many people would look for custom designed sports footware when running shoes would suffice?
Bottom line …
How to overcome jargon? Use the words in your readers’ heads, not the words in your head.
Sources: Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, “Save Lives with a $150 Lung Exam,” New York Daily News, Aug. 7, 2006
Arthur Browne, Beverly Weintraub and Heidi Evans, “Enough Studies: We Need Action,” New York Daily News, Sept. 6, 2006
Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Climate of Man I” and “The Climate of Man II,” The New Yorker, April 25 and May 2, 2005
Jakob Nielsen, ‘Use Old Words When Writing for Findability,” Alertbox, Aug. 28, 2006