That subject line. It's a layup question, isn't it?
Easy to answer "yes."
As if I just asked you "Should we protect the vulnerable?" Or "Are face tattoos a bad idea?"
Of course. Of course jargon is bad.
Or... is it always?
* * *
A few years ago, my daughter Caroline and I were at a
college's Accepted Students Day—when school administrators wine and dine prospective incoming freshmen in the hopes they'll choose their institutions above all others.
The wine and dine is metaphorical—no actual wine is involved. But we did get a nice club sandwich and quinoa salad at lunch.
I could've done without the raw onion in the quinoa, though. I piled the slices at the edge of my plate like trash at the curb.
At one point we were all gathered in an auditorium to hear about student life—about 300 of us parents and prospective freshmen.
The heads of various departments spoke: Campus Security. Student Activities. Housing. They were trying hard to make student life there sound
The beds are soft! The produce is locally sourced! And the sun shines all year round on the neatly manicured quad!
Free-range bunny rabbits hop hither and yon, pooping out confetti!
I'm exaggerating. Only a little.
The panel was in full sales mode. Campus life sounded amazing. The picture they painted was rosier than... well, an actual rose.
(Can parents go instead?
Asking for a me.)
* * *
Then came the Q&A session.
One parent—a dad, I guessed—raised his hand and asked a specific question about the dorms.
"You said you guarantee housing for freshmen," Dad said, standing up now. He was wearing a dad uniform. (Tan shorts, plaid short-sleeved button-down.)
"But what about if too many students decide to go here?" he asked. "I've heard about students crowded into small dorm rooms—where rooms meant for two kids have three? They call it a forced triple?"
Forced triple. Oof. Sounds... violent. Sounds... awful. Sounds crowded.
Family units around the room exchanged nervous glances. Someone
The housing administrator smiled a smile that showed all her teeth.
"Ah, yes," she acknowledged.
"But we call that expanded occupancy units."
* * *
You know that record-scratch sound? You hear it in a movie when suddenly the momentum stops dead.
That's what happened in the auditorium when Housing Administrator reframed a concept everyone could clearly see ("forced triple") with a jargon phrase ("expanded occupancy units").
Maybe that jargon is the language of her academic or administrative office. But it wasn't the language of parents or students sitting in that auditorium, each of whom immediately conjured up images of kids vacuum-packed like pickles.
Smiley Housing Administrator had undermined the entire
presentation: What else was the school spinning?
Suddenly, no one in the auditorium trusted that the campus life actually was rosier than an actual rose.
* * *
So when is jargon not bad, in writing, in marketing, in speaking, in life...?
Well, it depends.
It depends on your audience.
If Smiley Housing Administrator had been speaking to a room full of other administrators, expanded occupancy units would not have sucked the trust out of the room.
Jargon is like cholesterol—there's a good kind and a bad kind.
- When jargon and buzzwords signal belonging to an audience.
You understand your audience. You are using insider terms familiar to them.
- When jargon is shorthand for a shared mindset.
- Jargon that masks incompetence, insecurity.
- Jargon that's "the language of business."
- Time to shouty-cap the same point in a new bullet: THERE IS NO
LANGUAGE OF BUSINESS. There is only language people use with other people.
- Jargon and buzzwords are the chemical additives of content: You can use them from time to time. One or two used sparingly might help. But add too many of them and the whole thing becomes toxic.
* * *
I'm an optimist. I believe that most of us try to avoid buzzword bloat. We want to be understood. We
want in our heart of hearts to sidestep non-words and clichés and jargon.
Even our friend, Smiley Housing Administrator.
We never saw her again after that day. Caroline chose another school.
But I like to think that she regretted the reframing of "forced triple" as soon as the words escaped her mouth. I like to think she regretted correcting Dad.
I like to think that in future presentations, when another Dad stands in his khakis to ask about forced triples, she doesn't correct him.
Instead, she acknowledges that, yes, forced triples are a thing. But here's what the institution is doing to address it.
Or better yet... maybe she raises it before Dad has to.
Wouldn't that feel better? To everyone?
* * *
A content tool to snuff out anything that looks like jargon.
Splasho's Up-Goer Text Editor challenges you to explain an idea using only the dictionary's 1,000 most-used English words.
The Up-Goer Editor is a kind of writing mullet: mostly for fun, but with a business utility of simplifying
How it works: Type your text in the box. The editor boots out uncommon words, kicking to the curb anything that whiffs of jargon, buzzword, or complexity. And it helps you frame your writing in common language for readability and SEO.
STANDOUT SENTENCE OF THE WEEK
writing that deserves a slow clap.
In the brand-new edition of Everybody Writes (1000% more useful, 10% funnier), I encourage a daily
writing practice. (And give you some tips when you just aren't feeling it.)
Seven days ago, writer David McCullough died. And I can't think of a better way to honor him and give you a little daily writing inspiration.
In any kind of art, the only way to learn it is to do it, McCullough said:
"You don't learn how to play the piano by reading about it."
Thank you to Scott
Monty for the tip.