Is jargon always a bad thing?

Jargon has a bad reputation, but is this justified?

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There is no doubt that it has its uses. It is an expert’s shorthand - speeding up conversation between peers and helping to avoid lengthy wordcounts. It is also a useful indication of a person’s technical expertise. That said, the Cambridge Dictionary describes jargon as ‘language used by a particular group of people, especially in their work, and which most other people do not understand.’.

The key is to identify your audience and tailor your message accordingly.

Most of the thought leadership we create on behalf of professional service firms is directed towards the most senior of business owners, so a level of technical expertise is a given. The audience is usually C-Suite, MDs and so on; they are experts in their own fields – but they have hired a particular accountant or lawyer because they are not an accountant or lawyer themselves. They are looking for someone to explain to them what clause 12.3, section B2 of a particular rule book means to them, in language they understand. And preferably, in a compelling or insightful way.

Too much jargon leads to misunderstanding; less audience engagement; less emotional attachment which leads to a less memorable piece; and, perhaps most importantly, lost business opportunities.

One of my biggest challenges was articulating the new financial reporting advisory rules coming out of the EU (specifically changes to Generally Accepted Accounting Practice in the UK (UK GAAP) including FRS 102; International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS); and amendments to the Companies Act 2006 – are you still with me?). The issues were complex and dull but also incredibly important – if businesses didn’t change certain processes it would have led to significant disruption and fines. Every paragraph was crucially important, and even to someone who has spent more than a decade in marketing in the finance industry the terms, clauses and detail may as well have been written in German. I don’t speak German.

We landed on a campaign entitled ‘Hop, Skip and Jump’. The result was simple and effective, with a high-level of engagement and implementation of the clear call-to-actions, but it took time to get there. Mark Twain (or Blaise Pascal, depending on which side of the Pond you like your quotes to be attributed to…) was spot on when he wrote 'I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.'

So, no, jargon is not always a bad thing. At university, proofreading my friends’ dissertations (the downfall of being the only one of us studying English Language), I didn’t understand half of what was being said about the chemical reactions between X and Y, but it didn’t matter – I wasn’t the target audience. The target audience were professors in that very subject, so jargon was not just acceptable, it was expected. To explain every jargon term would have doubled the length of already lengthy papers.

We must always think first and foremost about our audience. I have specialised in translating professional service firm partner’s expertise into accessible, insightful, and importantly, digestible, articles for over a decade. Before embarking on any piece of writing, I ask – relentlessly and repeatedly – who is this for.

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