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Kill the Jargon

By John Millen

I don’t often offer financial advice, but given the current quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve, it’s a no-brainer to build incremental value by moving your resources from ill-liquid investments to ETF’s or another high-yield vehicle.

Not sure what I said there, but it’s typical of what people hear when experts in a field try to communicate with people who are not experts in the field, or even people inside their own organizations.

It’s because we use jargon, our own particular language.

Merriam-Webster defines jargon in two ways:

·       The jargon-way: “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group”

·       The simple way: “the language used for a particular activity or by a particular group of people”

Speak their language

If you’re trying to communicate with people, you need to speak their language, not your own.

As a communications coach for leaders, I work with many expert groups and individuals in specialized fields -- such as financial services, insurance, technology, healthcare and others -- that have their own unique languages.

The problem is that to be successful in any endeavor you’ll need to communicate and influence others to support you -- to buy your product or service, fund your research or donate to your cause.

To call people to action, we must connect with them and build their understanding. Jargon stands in the way.

Talking with jargon becomes a stumbling block. When we hear a word or acronym we don’t understand, it stops us in our tracks.

With this in mind, I’ll offer a few tips on how to deal with your jargon affliction:

Develop jargon awareness. You can’t deal with a problem until you recognize it. The inherent problem with jargon is we get so used to talking in shorthand inside our organization and our industry that we don’t even know we’re doing it.

It’s like being a fish in water and not knowing you’re wet. That’s how immersive jargon becomes. Many experts I’ve worked with even admit to finding a sense of security in their jargon, it’s a place that feels safe and warm.

It’s important to watch yourself, or ask a colleague to help gauge your use of jargon.

Define your terms. What do those initials stand for? What does that term mean? It’s easy enough to define your working terms in a way that will make sense to the people you’re talking with.

This is important, especially with mixed audiences, inside or outside your organization. You never know what level of knowledge people have, so it’s critical to set a foundation of understanding with your terms.

Keep it simple. With this in mind, you should keep it simple. Make sure you cover the bottom line first and then give detail. In training leaders to face reporters, I tell them that most newspapers -- not the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but USA Today -- are written at a 5th grade level, to provide understanding to everyone.

You can use that as a measure of basic communication for all audiences. Obviously, the more specialized or technically sophisticated your crowd, the higher you can raise your level. If you’re using numbers, you might want to read what I wrote about How to Make Numbers Seem ‘Sexy’.

Use an analogy or story. Even with more specialized audiences, you want to deepen their understanding. A good way to do this is to use an analogy, a metaphor or a story to connect with people and bring home the importance of your point. I wrote about this recently in Why Great Leaders Tell Stories.

Watch for non-verbals. Some people like to stay in their jargon because they think it makes them seem knowledgeable, showing their expertise. But in fact it makes them distant from the people they’re talking to. It’s like they’re speaking a different language.

One of my favorite Far Side cartoons features a guy scolding his dog: “Bad dog, Ginger! Don’t ever do that again, Ginger!” Of course, all his dog hears is, “Blah, blah, blah, Ginger!”

People won’t ask you to explain your jargon because they think they should know what it means. They’re afraid of seeming ignorant for asking a “stupid” question.

When we hear a term we don’t understand, it can stop us in our tracks. We’re trying to figure it out and you’ve moved on. But we’re still back there, trying to break through the jargon.

Watch people’s non-verbal cues to you about whether they’re following you. Do they have a distant, distracted look? Furrowed brow? Covering a yawn? ;-)

Ask and listen. Finally, and perhaps most important, ask and listen. Ask people frequently if they understand what you’re saying, what a term or concept means. Asking opens the door for real questions, dialogue and connection.

And making a connection is what it’s all about. We can’t inspire people to action, if they don’t understand us.

Kill the jargon!

Try to slay your jargon for a week and see the difference.

Photo Credit: Nick Karvounis