I’ve played in the public relations and writing sandbox for a variety of organizations. The list spans from a global technology company and the U.S. Army to a teaching hospital and a regional fine arts museum. As unalike as they were, my various employers all had one gigantic thing in common. Each had a complicated and intense set of jargon:
- As an editor for the military, I had four three-ring binders containing terminology and associated acronyms. One binder was for the Army, another for the Navy, a third for the Air Force and the fourth about NATO. Yikes.
- During my first week on the job for a telecom technology service provider, I was bombarded by so many unfamiliar words, such as “wireless backhaul” and “IP Multimedia Subsystems,” that I questioned my own wisdom in accepting the job. Language anxiety kept me up many nights.
- As a public affairs specialist at a huge hospital, I quickly realized that doctor talk is not patient-friendly talk. Good luck trying to tell a physician that a newsletter article she has written is unintelligible to the average person and needs significant editing.
- Oh, and I almost blew an museum public relations director job interview because I didn’t know the word “docent.” Yep, I had no idea that a docent was was the person who gave guided museum tours.
Does Jargon Matter?
No doubt you’ve heard the rule about eliminating jargon from conversations and writing. I generally agree but think jargon has its place. Within an organization, this language shorthand leads to efficiency in communications and creates a shared bond among employees. Because of jargon, a discussion of “tromboning” is a completely appropriate topic in the wireless communications world. (I’ll leave it to you to discover the lewd definition of this word.)
The challenge comes when you have to write for those who are not part of your secret language family — the members of the media, potential investors, government officials and others who are important audiences but not intimately involved in an organization’s day-to-day operations. For these stakeholders, jargon is a barrier to communication.
What’s more, the decision whether or not to eliminate jargon is wishy-washy at times. Eliminate it from the workplace and your professionalism might be questioned. Use too much of it with a reporter and you’ll lose credibility as a news source. Delete it from marketing collateral and your customers might become confused about exactly what you’re offering. Take it to a neighborhood BBQ and you’ll bore everyone within earshot.
The WWMT Technique
The best way to tackle the jargon juggernaut is the WWMT (What Would Mom Think) method.
Imagine being on the phone with your mom, aunt or best friend who has asked a question about your job but doesn’t really get what you do for a living. Take my mom, for example. Although I could have told her at one point that my job revolved around local exchange carriers (LECS), I explained that I’d been working with the local telephone company. Same thing; different words. When I talked to a friend about the military executive officer (XO) who stopped by my desk to discuss a permanent change of station (PCS), the sensible thing to say was that the soldier who was second in command stopped by to discuss his upcoming move to a new military base.
Applying the WWMT concept to business communications is easy. If working on a white paper, I’ll spend quite a bit of time figuring out who is going to read the final document. If the likely reader is an engineer who wants to learn more about how a specific solution actually works once installed, I’ll use a different set of jargon than if the reader is a senior executive who isn’t worried about the gory technology details but wants to know how a new product offering will attract customers and increase a company’s revenue stream.
This single technique — placing myself in an audience member’s shoes and asking what he or she would think — is really the only approach a writer needs to deal with jargon.
The key is an awareness and understanding of your audience. Cultivate this jargon-busting skill, and I promise you are well on the way to earning writing respect.