“Jargon masks real meaning, people use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”
-Jennifer Chatman, Management Professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Let’s take an example and test how much you can understand?
“‘The coordination issues inherent in a highly regionalised structure put emphasis on an efficient organisation of public governance, as the presence of multiple networks, layers and actors may lead to duplication of structures with weakened governance and higher administrative costs.” (extract from a 2013 European Commission document)
Very simply, when you use jargon, (and industry-specific terminology that a high-school student would not understand qualifies as such) you reduce the ability of an audience to understand your message. Audience members who cannot follow your jargon will not be able to extract the meaning or your message, and even those who do get it will often tune-out when you use them excessively or overload your talk with clichés and acronyms.
If having an audience turn off during your talk isn’t bad enough, using too much jargon can actually damage your reputation. According to a study by the University of Basel and New York University, the less concrete your language is the less trustworthy you will seem.
Easy to understand messages will resonate with your audience because they will be able to remember, retain, and share them regardless of whether they are in your field or not.
Here are some ideas on how you can avoid overusing jargon in your next presentation:
Find out how much your audience knows about your topic, and speak their language. Don’t play to the majority even if you believe most of the audience knows the jargon. You want everyone to understand you, so aim for the “lowest common denominator”.
- Make sure your language is to-the-point and simple while avoiding “talking down” to people as if they are unintelligent. You need to strike the right balance of being clear while still giving value to your audience. Often, a well-placed metaphor can do the trick
Avoid buzzwords, acronyms, and clichés. For example, phrases like “we need to think outside the box.”
- Use concise sentences that are easier to understand than convoluted sentences. Know the essence of what you want to say, and try to simplify it as much as possible. This might mean that you need to edit what you are saying a handful of times.
Speakers use jargon for a lot of reasons, whether it is because they want to impress their audiences by using “insider” language, or they want to make something sound more complex or sophisticated. Jargon sometimes helps us hide that we really don’t know what we’re talking about but want to sound like we do. Other times it’s a way to prevent others from really understanding what we’re doing, so why risk that with your audience?
One helpful tip is to have someone from outside your industry listen to your talk. Ask them to make a note every time you use jargon, clichés, or acronyms they don’t understand. Review the list after, and see if any of the terminology is replaceable. Keep in mind that if they can follow what you are saying, you are on the right track.
We could have picked any industry or sector as an example, but here is one that is a frequent offender. Here, is a list of commonly used jargon in the European Union and their alternatives:
Comitology: the “committee procedure”. Committees through which national authorities supervise the European Commission’s implementation of EU law. It’s essentially a decision-making procedure through which technical rules, like approving food additives or establishing CO2 emission levels, are adopted.
Actors: any of the following would work better: stakeholders, groups, bodies, organizations, parties, participants, interests, interest groups, players, those involved, or operators.
Leverage: a very common term in politics that is little understood by laymen. Everyday words like influence, power, authority, advantage, or pressure could work just as well.
Synergy: though semantically understood by most people, it’s hard to define it. Instead use cooperative interaction, cooperation, combined effort, or give and take.
Mainstreaming: a popular pseudo-word that was derived from a noun. Rather refer to anchoring in law and practice, establishing across the board, or in all policies.
Methodologies: the plural may not really be a word, it’s still often used in various official documents. Try organization order, structure, form, system, logic, planning, or method.
Low-hanging fruit: an overused cliche. Instead, say an easily achievable of a set of tasks, measures, or goals.
Transitional measures: a highly technical term. How about referring to the precautions made before making changes.
Flexicurity: talk about modernizing or reforming labor markets (combining flexibility for employers with security for workers), protecting people, not jobs.
- Cohesion: for non-experts, it can have various meanings depending on the audience’s field of expertise. Better mention social justice, balanced (economic) development, or regional cohesion. Try using words like unity, togetherness, solidarity, bond, coherence, connection, or linkage.
If you are not sure whether you’ve used too much jargon, there are plenty of resources available for finding out if your language has become too much like the above example. We’ve located a few of the best, online guides to help you determine which words are most overused in the EU.
Here is our shortlist of great guides:
- Glossary of summaries by EUR-Lex
- EU jargon in English and some possible alternatives by the EU Internet Handbook
- Tips on what counts as jargon by the EU Internet Handbook
- This hilarious list of new and improved EU jargon terms by Craig Winneker of Politico.eu