How to avoid the jargon trap

Having just run a number of writing workshops, designed to help executives write better board papers, business cases and improve their general written communications, I was often asked why it was so necessary to get rid of jargon.

When we are experts in our respective fields we become attached to jargon, quite unconsciously. We can find it difficult to identify jargon, let alone remove it from our writing and conversations.

What is forgotten is that when you write and speak in business, you are writing and speaking to other people, not robots or even businesses and it's really important to communicate in a clear and interesting manner. You should be aiming to hold someone's attention, not put them to sleep.

Once you have the skills, effective speaking and writing comes down to practice and watching your audience. If the people you are talking to are making eye contact and responding to what you are saying, your message is getting across. If not, you have work to do. If people aren't responding to your emails or your business documents aren't being approved, you need to become a more effective writer.

Here are some examples of jargon and what to use instead:

  • Stop optimising things, improve them instead
  • A computer has bandwidth, you have time or capacity
  • Don't incentivise, motivate
  • Avoid having ownership of something, be responsible for it instead 

As the late Steve Jobs once said:

"Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean, to make things simple. But it's worth it in the end, because once you get there, you can move mountains."

The Economist is written for smart people, right? Well, here's how its style guide opens:

"The first requirement of The Economist is that it should be readily understandable. Clarity of writing usually follows clarity of thought. So think what you want to say, then say it as simply as possible."

This is very hard to do, even with a voice recorder because we edit what we say before we say it.

Fear plays a large role in the use of jargon; fear of being found out, fear of being perceived as stupid for saying something too simply and fear of being rejected or even fired.

Be aware of this and try not to be fearful when you communicate, you'll find the words flow far more easily.