Words are cheap but jargon comes at a cost

Most professions and industries have their own jargon – words and phrases that have a specific meaning within a particular group but a different meaning (or none at all) outside the group.

To those who use it regularly, jargon can be inclusive. It’s the kind of language you hear at professional conferences, or in social settings where people from the same industry ‘talk shop’. Jargon acts as a kind of shorthand, allowing complex ideas to be conveyed more quickly. It also creates a sense of belonging, since those ideas can only be understood by others who use the same language.

The flip side is that jargon can also be used to exclude, either deliberately or by perpetuating exclusivity. Some sectors are known for using language that is difficult for lay people to understand, such as medicine and the health professions, the legal profession and the finance industry.

As these areas become more specialised and complex, it becomes harder for the average person to understand the concepts they present. Using the health sector as an example, six out of ten Australians have low health literacy, so the cost of using jargon, technical terms and acronyms is that many people are unable to understand and use information to manage their own health.

Breaking the jargon habit is hard. It may be so entrenched in professional culture that you can be completely unaware you’re using it. Then there’s the ‘curse of knowledge’ to overcome, where you unconsciously assume the person you’re speaking to has a level of background understanding.

Today’s Drop the Jargon Day started in 2014 with the aim of increasing health literacy. This event has since grown to include community services and local government, as ‘many Australians have trouble understanding and using information provided by organisations’. You can pledge to drop the jargon for a day and even nominate jargon you love to hate.

While jargon has its place, when people are looking for information, advice or expertise they don’t bargain on jargon. If you are providing written information, jargon is likely to simply confuse your audience. So if you really want to connect with your readers, drop the jargon and use plain language, all year round. Using the active voice and keeping sentences short will also make content more engaging for even greater impact.

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Image credit: Ged Carroll Power of jargon via Flickr (license)