Jargon in business writing is like mold.
It sets in while you’re looking elsewhere, and before you know it, your prose and the message you want to send to the world are thoroughly infested.
The words you use represent your business and your brand—to your customers and employees, vendors, investors, and more. The use of shopworn or technical language confuses and alienates these various audiences and should be avoided like, well, the plague.
Here are more drawbacks to the creeping, insidious blight known as business jargon:
- Readers get frustrated by language that lacks any obvious meaning. Frustration leads to diminished interest and the urge to look elsewhere for answers.
- Lacking any relationship with overly technical jargon, would-be customers can’t offer the type of feedback a business needs to refine and upgrade its products or services.
The usual business jargon suspects
Examples of jargon in business writing abound. How many of the following examples sound familiar?
- End-users will benefit from the maximized efficiency and innovation of our product line.
- After processing the most urgent action items, we should have sufficient bandwidth to address this mission-critical deliverable.
- The best way to leverage our resources is by incentivizing all relevant constituencies and picking off the most optimum low-hanging fruit.
OK, I may have overdone it with these examples, but we’ve all used some of the words and phrases included here—and to what end? Because it’s easy and we assume everyone else understands what these buzzwords mean.
That assumption is wrong. People who might someday decide whether to buy your products (“end-users”) might act as though they understand—who wants to look ignorant?—but jargon blocks any chance of a genuine, human connection with these audiences.
Useful anti-jargon remedies
Here are some things to keep in mind while composing email messages, website content, or your annual report:
Seek out and destroy technical terms: Whatever your industry, certain words and phrases keep popping up that resonate only with specialists in the field.
It’s fine to include these in the first draft of your message, but they should be deleted from succeeding revisions. Ruthlessly search for and replace technical terms and industry-specific abbreviations (the latter can be spelled out, if that results in clarity for the reader).
If you can’t bring yourself to replace a particular technical term, consider including a brief, clearly written glossary of technical terms in a separate box.
Try writing like you talk: This is good advice for all types of communications, but in this case you’re less likely to use jargon after saying it out loud to yourself. (Can we really say “actionable” or “paradigm shift” anymore without wincing a little?)
Writing the way you talk always sounds more authentic and natural-and offers greater appeal to your intended audience.
Anticipate customers’ questions: Unless your product or service is completely new and untested, you probably have an idea of what your customers intuitively understand about your offering and where that understanding breaks down.
Always, always, always address the key question in any customer’s mind: What’s in it for me? As communicators, you must be able to address this question in clear, “human-sounding” language.
Other questions likely to pop up include:
- Which part of my message is a reader least likely to understand?
- Can I provide additional explanation that clarifies the value my product offers?
- Where can I use fresh language so customers feel I’m in tune with their needs and the challenges they face?
Share your writing with someone outside the industry: Generally speaking, one’s spouse or family members are unlikely to share your specialized knowledge. Try running a draft of your message past family or friends to see whether it’s clear and easy to follow. Ask that they single out any jargon or language they don’t get-and expunge that language from future drafts.
Jargon occurs in some form in all businesses, but when it pops up in messages to customers, employees, etc., your job is to isolate and eliminate it.
If you don’t, you might end up negatively impacting the desired scalability of your synergistic enterprise.
And nobody wants that.
What’s your favorite example of business jargon?
Lee Polevoi is an award-winning freelance copywriter and editor. He is the former senior writer for Vistage International, a global membership organization of chief executive officers. He writes frequently on issues and challenges faced by U.S. small businesses. A version of this article first appeared on the Spin Sucks blog.