Read this if you can’t stop using jargon

Jargon is rife, not just in policy and research communications. Admitting the problem is the first step. But understanding why we slip into jargon can also help us stop it for good.

Communication tends to fail when we don’t genuinely commit to it.

We meet up with a friend in the pub, hoping to re-connect: but they’re distracted by their phone. We create beautiful infographics, but don’t factor in spending a bit more money on paid social, so they don’t reach audiences who’ll appreciate them.

And then, there’s jargon. Jargon refers to words or expressions a group uses among themselves that outsiders struggle to understand. We can spot it immediately – it’s the “low-hanging fruit” we “execute on” to satisfy our “stakeholders”.

Jargon is annoying because the person using it is trying to communicate with us – after all, they’ve written or spoken to us. But they’ve not done the work to understand who we are, how we see the world, and what language might make a genuine connection possible.

So why do we find jargon everywhere? 

We want to send a signal

I was born in England, but I grew up in India. Both are very structured societies – you tend to know where you stand in relation to anyone you meet. In England, this structure comes from the class system. Indian society is structured by a class system that overlays an older, caste-based division of society. 

While learning Hindi, I also learned how to address those below me, at my level, and above me. For example, the familiar pronoun tu (you) goes along with the verb form de (give). I’d never use this way of speaking with someone older than me, or higher in the social hierarchy: they’d expect aap (you) and dijiye (give).

You’re very unlikely to hear these distinctions made explicitly in English. The familiar form thou would turn heads in the UK today if you’re not performing Shakespeare. Instead, we send status signals through our language in more subtle ways.

We send status signals through our language in subtle ways.

This includes ‘professional’-sounding words and phrases. Part of the excellent tone of voice guidelines used by the UK banking start-up Monzo is a brief history of this kind of language. 

“The Romans arrived in Britain a couple of thousand years ago, and brought Latin with them. Local tribal leaders had to learn Latin, or else. So they did, and Latin became the language of religion and administration – which is why the words “religion” and “administration” come from Latin.”

“Even after the Romans left, that Latin stuck around. The top of society used it as a way to separate themselves from the common folk who couldn’t understand it. It was a way of saying: ‘We know something you don’t.'”

Fast forward to today, and in a ‘professional’ context we say “commence” when we mean “start”, and “terminate” when we mean “end”. And just like in the Hindi example I gave before, our words become longer. Our sentences become less direct.

We don’t want to say something

During the Vietnam War, the US military began using the phrase “collateral damage” to refer to the killing of civilians and destruction of civilian property during military action. It’s a euphemism because it substitutes a comfortable word – damage – for an uncomfortable one – killing. But it’s also a euphemism because it creates distance. We didn’t kill: damage happened.

The passive voice is one of the best ways someone can tell we’re hiding something. In the example above, it’s who is responsible for civilian deaths. But it might just be that we want someone to take action. In both English and Hindi, we can phrase requests in different ways to avoid shame if we don’t get what we ask for. 

The passive voice is one of the best ways someone can tell we’re hiding something.

Imagine you’re sitting in an English tea-room. There’s a murmur of quiet conversation, and teaspoons ring against china cups. You turn to your companion and say either “have a cup of tea”, or “would you like a cup of tea?”, or “do you like tea?”.

Each request creates more and more distance from an actual, poured, cup of tea. A refusal gives you less and less reason to feel ashamed: to lose ‘face’. In the politest form of English – which I learned from my grandmother – you are enquiring about your companion’s drink preferences in the most general terms.

The bad news is that in professional life, we’re asking people to do specific things for us, and they’re often asking us to do things for them in return. We don’t help them by being unclear about who should do the thing, and what it is.

If our business is asking for policy change, it’s particularly important to make clear requests. We know that policymakers are under time pressure. As my colleague Anne Murray writes, if you manage to get time in the diary with a policymaker, they “will dissect your words for a ‘call to action’”. Don’t bury it in polite padding.

We choose not to cut through complexity

We can see jargon as a type of failed communication: the speaker addresses us, but doesn’t do the work to make themselves understood. There is an argument that lazy speakers and writers are responsible for the spread of jargon. George Orwell made this case in his polemic ‘Politics and the English language’. He wrote:

“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”

This lack of effort may have been understandable in previous eras. Once, in a world divided by hard borders and cultural boundaries, jargon meant “hybrid” or even “barbarous” language.  You might need a hybrid language because, like a mediaeval diplomat, you’re one of a select few that regularly move between cultures: no time to explain. But today, we’re all doing that. 

Jargon is a type of failed communication: the speaker addresses us, but doesn’t do the work to make themselves understood.

With the rise of the professions and technical expertise, jargon referred to the specialist terms and phrases they used. If you were a 20th century scientist, it’s possible that your work required so much specialist knowledge that you’d need a specialist language. But by 2020, nearly two-fifths of the adult population of OECD countries had some degree-level education.

What’s more, we make key decisions about our daily lives based on a working understanding of scientific evidence. How much do I risk exposure to coronavirus if I take this flight? How much carbon dioxide will it generate?

Orwell was actually quite hopeful about the English language. If we teach ourselves to write clearly, he argued, we’ll be able to think clearly. The legendary advertising strategist David Ogilvy had a very similar conviction.

For those working in policy and research communications, clear communication becomes possible once we’ve understood our audiences. It starts with fine-grained understanding of who they are: “decisionmakers” and “the public” won’t cut it. 

Clear communication depends on knowing what our audiences want from us.

It’s essential that you properly analyse who makes decisions and shapes policy discussions. But that’s not all. As we’ve argued before at Cast From Clay, ‘the public’ are an active part of the policy dynamic today. So we need to think carefully about which parts of the public we need to engage if we want decisionmakers to pay attention. 

Influencing policy today: The Insider: Work in politics or policy The Activist: Are politically active The Engaged: Have taken political action The Spectator: Interested in politics General population: Entire UK public
What we mean when we talk about ‘the public’ in our own work

Clear communication also depends on knowing what our audiences want from us.

We now know a lot about how policymakers actually source and process information. Paul Avey and Michael Desch surveyed 250 national security decisionmakers in the USA. They found officials from across the George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush Administrations didn’t “have the time to read much” and certainly don’t read anything longer than 10-15 pages.

Jo Maybin went a step further: spending 18 months with civil servants in the UK Department of Health, “observing them in meetings, reading what they were reading and writing, and interviewing them about their work”.  Because they to are short on time, they want to speak to people, and leave with knowledge that is “up-to-date, candid, synthesised and editorialised”. 

I don’t suggest that you should always do ethnographic study of your audiences. But audience research is integral to good communications – and you also have to act on what you find.

Which leaves us with jargon as a deliberate act of exclusion. If your job is ultimately to come up with ideas that could improve our societies, and you find yourself using language that excludes, ask yourself: why?

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