How to train your jargon

Consumers in a print-digital duopoly environment inload multi-format content based on subjectively judged projected likelihood of audience satisfaction.

Nope, me neither. Let’s try that again.

People read, watch or listen to something if they think they’ll like it.

Alright, that’s a deliberately silly example for the sake of a joke. However, both of the above statements are definitely true and are simply the same thing said two different ways. The former is full of jargon to the point where it’s likely that only people who already know what all of those terms mean can get the gist, while the latter doesn’t have any jargon at all and could be readily understood by just about anybody.

So here’s the question: which is the right way to communicate the same idea?

I’ve got to admit that I’m a little divided on the subject of jargon. Yes, something like the first example above is clearly excessive and anyone who writes something like that with serious intent has obviously gotten carried away – it’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s certainly not helpful if you’re trying to deliver ROI in content marketing. However, a crucial fact that often gets overlooked in the rush for a low-hanging joke is that jargon is actually intended to be helpful. If used properly, it can be a useful tool – even an outright necessity in a web environment – and it might even pass completely without notice.

But how do you use jargon properly?

Jargon is a tool to rebuild often-complex ideas and principles into a more streamlined form that’s easier to use in everyday circumstances. It probably goes without saying that this can save a great deal of time and hassle for all concerned. Why drag things out with a lengthy explanation of intention, assumptions and maybe even philosophical underpinnings when you can get everyone up to speed in one go and get to something that needs your attention faster?

But it’s when jargon isn’t used correctly that things go awry and it’s why the word itself now largely comes with (let’s be fair, not entirely unjustified) negative connotations. The two major problems dominating the argument are overuse and misuse.

Overuse needs no explanation, since you really don’t need to be an expert to spot something staggering so badly under the weight of all the buzzwords that it’s turned to nonsense. Misuse is a bit more subtle, but it’s still easy to see. Are you just breezing past something you really should be giving proper attention? Is someone feeling frozen out of the conversation because you’re suddenly speaking what might as well be a foreign language? Have you accidentally missed something important because you cut down that bit too far?

Moderation in all things

The best thing to do is to find a healthy balance based on the simple question: at what point does it stop helping? If it’s a convenient shorthand that’ll keep things moving smoothly by just appealing to a concept someone is already familiar with to spare having to do everything from scratch all over again, good.

If you have a taste for irony, you’ll probably have noticed that we already have examples handy. I used ‘streamlined’ several paragraphs ago instead of saying ‘without any superfluous material that could affect audience convenience, attention or ability to understand’, which got us to the same place in a fraction of the time. That goes double for ‘ROI in content marketing’ further up too.

If, however, everything has just turned into a blizzard of buzzwords as a substitute for an actual message and your audience has got lost somewhere along the way, backtrack and try to work out how you got there.

Some things really can only be reached by going the long way round, so do you need to talk something over properly before you can get moving again? Is your audience familiar with the concept but not the term you use to express it and you need to unpack it a little? Have your oversimplified and accidentally missed something important?

In the end, we’re back at first principles again and a fundamental objective (probably the fundamental objective, actually) of communication is to get information from A to B without anything important getting lost between the two. If jargon can help you do that, go for it. If it isn’t helping, you might want to try something else. Frankly, your content needs to work hard for you and it can’t do that at all if you lost your audience because you were trying to sound clever!

P.S. I’ve got to admit I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for an evolutionary response-based adaptive course of action (or ‘making it up as we go along’), though.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed and lost by a piece of text containing so much jargon that it becomes irrelevant to you? Share your stories with us over on Twitter.