Cutting Through The Jargon

Make your stories simple and appealing.

Also co-authored by Calvin Koon-Stack, Hattaway Communications. 

You know the feeling. You’re at a conference, or a dinner party, or an interview, and suddenly someone mentions something about inhibiting factors of hormone production or a poverty index score or the nuances of XML and XSLT coding—and your attention begins to wander. You snap back moments later and try to regain your footing, but you carry the sinking feeling of disinterest and confusion in the pit of your stomach for the rest of the conversation. You’re never quite sure of what you missed.

So what happened? You just experienced firsthand how jargon prevents effective communication.

When you hear a word that is unfamiliar, your brain automatically tries to understand its meaning by scanning your memory for similar words or phrases. This process can consume your “working memory” to the extent that you are too distracted to hear what is said next. Through no fault of your own, you were physically incapable of processing the information that followed.

Odds are high that your organization struggles with jargon of its own—whether you realize it or not. Our team at Hattaway Communications has worked with organizations around the world to eliminate jargon, and we encounter it in every field—from scientists to social entrepreneurs. Jargon causes confusion, distraction, and the death of wavering attention spans everywhere. It also limits your ability to motivate and mobilize your audience in support of your cause. In short, there is no place for jargon in storytelling.

Part of the danger of jargon is its allure. We tend to think that big words mean big ideas—that they help to convey authority, intelligence and power. There’s a good reason for this. Jargon develops within communities of experts who all speak the same language. Linguists call these “discourse communities.” Within those communities, jargon serves as a convenient shorthand to help speed up communication, since everyone is on the same page. But much more often than not, that jargon spreads outside of the discourse community and into communication with broader audiences. When that happens, jargon is no longer helpful—in fact, it prevents your audience from understanding what you’re saying and taking action for your cause.

Luckily, psychology provides us with insights into the nature of jargon and how we can overcome the obstacles it raises. Among these insights is one called “fluency theory,” which states that people are more likely to trust information they can easily understand.

For an example of fluency theory at work consider the sentence below.

“Effective care for mother and baby at this time also reduces maternal mortality and intrapartum stillbirths, resulting in a triple return on investment.”

Now, without looking at a dictionary or calling that one friend you have who’s a doctor or a nurse, can you explain what that sentence means? You will probably be able to get the general idea, but you won’t be able to process it fluently—which means you’re less likely to understand or trust it.

Now, take a look at this sentence:

“Effective care for mother and baby at this time also saves mothers’ lives, keeps babies alive during birth and saves three times as much money as it costs.”

Isn’t that better? In addition to being clearer, this sentence also draws on cognitive psychology to use specific words and phrases that aid your comprehension. For example, when you read “saves mothers’ lives,” you may have felt a small emotional reaction. If so, you’re likely to remember that sentence for a longer period of time. That’s because emotion helps us to process information, so if something creates an emotional response, we’re more likely to understand and remember it.

The reason we show you this example is to demonstrate that even complicated technical jargon can be translated into language that is memorable and motivating. By following a few basic guidelines, you can help cut through the jargon and communicate clearly and concisely with your audience.

When attempting to cut through the jargon, you want your audience to:

Feel It. Emotion aids cognition, so language and images that create an emotional reaction will help your audience understand and remember what you’re communicating.

Believe It. Fluency theory says we’re more likely to trust information we easily understand.

See It. Language that creates visual images in people’s minds is easier to comprehend and remember.

Say It. Use language your audience is comfortable saying themselves, so they will repeat your information to co-workers and peers.

Good luck, and happy writing!