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The Perils of Using Jargon

by Tim North

Recently I spoke with loans officers at several of my local banks in order to find out the costs associated with a housing loan. One of the things that struck me in all of these conversations was the astonishing (to me) level of jargon used by the bank staff when explaining their products. Phrases such as "interest capitalisation loans" and "interest only loans" are obviously clear as day to the people who use them, but the first time I heard them they did nothing but confuse me. Let me be honest here. I'm guilty of the same thing myself. When speaking as a proof-reader, I'll sometimes use the jargon of my profession not realising that it's confusing to others. And when I speak as a computer consultant, the opportunity for jargon is even worse!

Unless they're trying to be pretentious, people don't usually use jargon in a deliberate attempt to confuse others. It's generally unintentional. We all have subjects in which we have more expertise than the people around us, and it can be easy to forget that the language we use can be confusing to others.

How then can we avoid using jargon? Whether speaking or writing, the key is to be absolutely clear on what you can expect your audience to already know. If you're not sure, ask them.

The upshot of this is that we may need to use different language when explaining the same concept to different audiences. A "one size fits all" approach is often inappropriate.

For example, if I'm delivering a presentation to a group of engineers, I'll use the necessary technical language of that profession in order to ensure brevity and precision. No one in such a group would mind the use of such language. Quite the reverse -- if I were to "dumb down" the talk, it would be of lesser value and probably poorly received.

If I was presenting the same information to middle managers, I'd employ different language. If pitched at the right level, they wouldn't consider it to be dumbed down; rather, they would (hopefully) find it clear and comprehensible.

An untrained worker overhearing the middle-managers' presentation may still go away thinking that it was jargonistic, though. The lesson here should be clear: one person's jargon is another's clear speech.

The onus, then, is on *you* to know what your audience can deal with and to explain your material in those terms. This can be a great challenge -- particularly if your own knowledge of the material is a bit shaky.

You'll find over 200 tips like this in Tim North's much applauded e-book BETTER WRITING SKILLS. Download a sample chapter here: http://www.betterwritingskills.com