No one likes jargon. It’s a fluffy crutch that copywriters, speakers, and marketers fight to avoid. No one’s going to write a short guide to copywriting with jargon that sings its praises, and yet it seems to show up in our marketing copy constantly. Why? And how do we avoid it?
What is jargon?
Jargon is the misuse or failed attempt at specialized, professional language. Nearly all professionals have their own terminology used to describe the issues they (and sometimes only they) encounter, be they baker, soldier, tailor, engineer, or marketer. Specialized language helps experts talk to each other in an effective way, but it also tells you a lot about the speaker. Using professional language correctly is a way of demonstrating expertise.
When properly deployed:
- Professional language builds trust with your audience. Jargon alienates them.
- Professional language is a source of meaning. Jargon makes the reader do the work to find meaning.
- Professional language makes your audience feel smart. Jargon makes them feel dumb—or at the very least, uninformed.
By no means is this another anti-jargon screed. I love specific language, and I’ll admit that I have a fondness for some marketing buzzwords. “Actionable” makes me want to jump. “Pivot” implies a dynamic movement. “Value-add” sounds weird at first, but it really makes a lot of sense. However, some words are abused in marketingland, no matter their intention. Recognize these?
- Begs the question
- Circle back
- Reach out
- Thought leader
Several of these terms have been overused to the point that they’re meaningless. Using them signals “I’m out of touch” rather than “I’m an expert.” Some are easily replaced. For instance, there’s no justification for “utilize” other than in science writing. Just say “use.” “Begs the question” is its own special category because everyone uses it wrong.
It’s still important to sound professional, though. Here’s how you do it in a meaningful way.
Make sure your audience will understand.
This might sound like a blindingly obvious thing to think about, but it’s something every communicator should consider for every single thing they write or say.
For instance, are you a chef speaking to other chefs? Great! Use all of the rarified culinary terminology you wish. In fact, your audience will probably find it weird if you dance around industry-specific language. Saying “cut the potatoes like fries” will sound far stranger to fellow chefs than “julienne the potatoes.”
However, if you’re a chef writing for home cooks, you can absolutely say “cut the potatoes like fries.” Or, if you do use “julienne” as a verb, take a moment to define it: “We’re going to julienne the potatoes. That is, cut them like you would for thin shoestring fries.”
Explain it quickly and in an informative manner, and you’ll demonstrated your specialized knowledge while making sure your audience is educated and understands you. That’s a win!
Make sure you’re using correct terms—correctly.
It’s dangerous to sound pretentious. If you try to use in-group signifiers and fail, you’ll become even more alienated from your audience, running the risk of a “How do you do, fellow kids?” situation.
For example, if you’re an audio nerd like me, you might refer to a juicy interview as “that’s good tape” (without the definitive article) among colleagues, even though reel-to-reel technology is rarely used today. But no professional podcaster or radio host would refer to a recording as “tape” on the air to their audience. That subtle difference distinguishes people who are in the know from people who are merely trying to appear in the know.
The language you’re using should be current and meaningful. This is especially pertinent when using slang terms and buzzwords, many of which have very short lifespans and can quickly lapse into self-parody. “Think outside the box” is a good example. Anyone saying it is firmly inside the box. It might just be the most unfortunately ironic metaphor in business language, as this saying about unconventional thinking is now the very picture of cliche.
Use plain language as much as possible.
If you have doubts about whether or not to use specialized speech, just don’t. Keep things as simple and understandable as possible. Don’t substitute big or ornate words for simple and small ones. Deviate from ordinary language only when you have to.
On a recent episode of The Allusionist, an excellent podcast about language, the astrophysicist Katie Mack weighed in on technobabble in sci-fi movies.
Mack emphasized that media often makes scientific language more complicated than it actually is. Real scientists, she said, use complicated language only when they need to, and don’t sound like the motormouths many movies or TV shows portray. Even dense and mysterious concepts can sometimes be named simply. “Big bang” and “dark matter” speak to some of the most complicated phenomena the universe has ever seen, and yet their names are simple and to the point.
If astrophysicists can keep it simple, then so can marketers.