By Doug Hattaway and Tiara Broome
Jargon is defined as a specialized language used by people within a particular professional, cultural, or social group—like a government agency. It isn’t always a bad thing. Within such groups, jargon allows for efficient communication of complex ideas, in the form of shorthand words and phrases whose meanings are understood by people who have been trained to speak the language.
However, people who speak a specialized language tend to overestimate the extent to which others outside their group understand their jargon. Often, jargon becomes so embedded in a group’s vocabulary that it affects communication with people who don’t speak the specialists’ language.
When this happens, jargon no longer enables efficient communication—it prevents it. Imagine telling a constituent about a new housing program the government is offering, only using government acronyms and agency jargon like HUD and FHA. The constituent would have a hard time understanding the benefits of the program, let alone how to apply for it.
What happened/ What should happen?
Our brains process information in two ways. The first is intuition— the gut reactions, first impressions, and emotional responses that occur automatically when we encounter new information and situations. The second is cognition—weighing alternatives, making calculations, seeking out new information, and other mental tasks that come into play when we “stop and think.”
Jargon requires your reader or listener to shift their mental gears from intuition to cognition and to expend precious mental energy trying to figure out what unfamiliar words, phrases, or acronyms mean. As a survival mechanism, humans are hardwired to avoid mental strain, because the brain is the largest consumer of the energy we use for our mental, emotional, and physical activities.
It turns out complex language actually reduces our ability to think. You might have had the experience of reading to the end of a page in a document, and suddenly realizing that you hadn’t really been paying attention to the text. There’s a reason for that. When you hear or read a word you don’t know, your brain scans verbal memory for clues to its meaning. Unless your audience is highly motivated, they will tune out the jargon without making the effort to understand it.
Science offers answers. In short, for language to have maximum persuasive power, the audience must:
“Fluency theory,” says that people are more likely to trust the information they understand with little effort. If jargon makes content difficult to process, people will be less likely to understand it—or believe it. This dynamic occurs not only with unfamiliar language but also with complex ideas and cluttered visuals.
Ultimately, the words and images you use determine whether your attempt at communication will be effective. For a message to spread via word-of-mouth (or on the Internet), the language should also be easy to remember and repeat.
Psychology and linguistics offer useful guidance for finding “Winning Words”—which are easy to process, memorable and motivating. Consider these tips when crafting your language:
- Active Verbs: It is easier for people to understand a sentence if it’s describing what an agent is doing rather than if it is describing what something is.
- Familiar Phrases: Our minds ascribe importance and believability to words and phrases we’ve heard before.
- Vivid Words: Most of our information processing is visual. If words evoke images of people, places and things, we’re more likely to remember them.
- Repeatable Sayings: Try to use phrases that you think your audience would be comfortable using themselves, so they repeat your message to their colleagues, peers, and families.
- Meaningful Metaphors: Use metaphorical words and phrases that help people understand abstract ideas.
- Alliteration: Select words that begin with the same letter or letters to emphasize important ideas.
Although jargon can be helpful in your specialized group, to your audience it is confusing and makes understanding your content difficult. The use of jargon prevents efficient communication and makes it hard for your audience to trust the information. In order for your language to have maximum motivating power, people must be able to feel it, believe it, see it, and say it. Make your message easy to understand.
Done writing? Please restate the following:
- The problem: The use of jargon when communicating about complex issues that non-experts wouldn’t otherwise be familiar with creates communication and language barriers.
- Why it matters: Science tells us that people are more likely to retain and trust the information they understand with little effort.
- The solution: By using words that are memorable, motivating, and easy to process you will be able to communicate information and ideas clearly and effectively.