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Avoiding Needless Jargon

Organizations need jargon. Every industry or organization has its own specialized terms that express common ideas clearly and succinctly. Often these terms take the form of acronyms. It's far easier, for example, to refer to CBC 16 than to the Corporate Banking Center in Far Rockaway.

The problem arises when we attempt to use these shorthand terms with people who aren't in our industry or organization. We are so familiar with them that we forget others may not know them. The following tips will help us remember to write or talk so people will understand us.

Avoiding Needless Jargon
Use Simple Words 
Highly jargonized speech has always been with us. If you read the terms "downgradient from" or "avian activity," for example, you can tell you're in the engineering or environmental world. 

Although there may be fine shades of meaning (unknown to me) between these terms and "downhill from" or "birds," the average person is not going to know the difference, so you should use the simpler words.

Expand Acronyms When Necessary
Acronyms present a special problem. Not only might they confuse the uninitiated, but they can have several alternate meanings. CBC, for instance, can also mean Complete Blood Count (OK, so I've watched a few doctor shows), Canadian Broadcasting Corp., or Carolina Bird Club. 

When I was a banker, we required prospective borrowers to give us a personal financial statement, referred to internally as a PFS. I would occasionally hear officers, however, tell a new client that we would need a PFS from them. When the client looked at them blankly, the officers would explain by expanding the acronym.

Remember: The Goal Is to Communicate
Sometimes people use jargon as a euphemism or to avoid responsibility. Just think of Alexander Haig's "That's not a lie; it's a terminological inexactitude," or Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." Politicians are particularly adept at using jargon-laced speech to hide the fact that they're committing themselves to nothing. 

In some cases, people use jargon (and other forms of stilted prose) because it makes their message seem more important. In fact, it just keeps them from communicating effectively, and they are forgetting their goal.

Resist the Urge to Turn Nouns into Verbs
One source of modern jargon is the impulse to turn nouns into verbs. My first day of business school, I was surprised to learn that I could access the facility from the rear. A friend of mine once worked at a company where they turned detritus into a verb. You didn't throw anything away - you detrited it. 

Particularly egregious is the use of "impact" as a verb (the proper word, by the way, is "affect") and the adjectival formation "impactful." These terms are mainly promulgated by second-tier news publications and local newscasters. You will seldom see "impact" as a verb in top-level publications like the Wall Street Journal, and don't hold your breath waiting to hear Brian Williams refer to something as "impactful."

Watch Out for Adjectives with Double Meanings
Another source of confusion is giving existing adjectives new meanings. In a bank training class, the instructor kept referring to "checkable deposits." My thought was, "Hey, we're the bank; we ought to be able to check them." Turned out, he was referring to deposits against which one could write a check. 

Ditto for "actionable." If the things on your to-do list are actionable, it now means you can act on them. Don't use this expression with lawyers, however, for whom it will always mean something that can be litigated.

Remember Your Audience
Your use of jargon should depend on whether your audience is likely to understand you. If they already know what CBC or PFS means, by all means use them. If they don't know, don't test their ability to figure them out. In business, you only have a few seconds to get your message across, so you should make the reader's task as easy as possible. 

You should also remember the principle of conservatism. No-one is going to criticize you if you use the verb "affect," but if you use "impact" as a verb, there are still some people who will think you're a hack.

All the best,
P.S. Remember: a selection of my past newsletters is available online at http://www.holton.cc/archive.html.