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The five worst professions for jargon

2nd May 12

By Bernard O’Riordan, Clarity Media Trainer

“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.”  - Renowned advertising guru David Ogilvy.

Recently I wrote a piece saying we should all take a leaf out of Winston Churchill's book and use simple, jargon-free language when dealing with the media. It prompted someone to ask who the most challenging people to interview were, so I thought that was worth exploring.

At the risk of opening a can of worms, experience has taught me that the most frustrating professions a journalist will ever report on are science/medicine, law, accounting, investment banking and IT, in no specific order. 

Not because the highly-skilled professionals working in these fields aren’t friendly or knowledgeable; it’s just that they are often verbose when they talk to the media. They tend to use language that is technical, annoying, dull, uninspiring and dripping with industry jargon.

And it’s understandable. Scientists and medical professionals often find it difficult to use simple language because they’re immersed in significant, even ground-breaking work that they don’t want to dumb down.

Accountants, investment bankers and IT professionals focus on numbers, complicated financial products and algorithms, not words. And lawyers have trip wires everywhere; they agonise over words and meticulously dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ before speaking. 

Now it’s a great generalisation to suggest anyone who works in these professions is a bad communicator. The late Steve Jobs, for example, lived and breathed technology but he was a master when it came to using simple, informal language to convey big and technical ideas.

But there is a tendency for many professionals to hide behind industry jargon, legalese and gobbledygook when they talk to reporters.

You know the types of irrelevant buzz words I’m talking about; those inscrutable terms that act like a roadblock in a conversation: “at the end of the day”, “stakeholder engagement”, “leverage”, “sub-optimal targets”, "output based objectives" and “moving forward”, to name but a few.

The global financial crisis threw up so much mind-numbing financial slang that the BBC even created its own glossary of banking jargon-busters for online readers. 

Just why people slip into abstract language and meaningless expressions is puzzling, but often it's a safety net or their way of trying to sound smart when they're nervous. 

But there’s nothing safe or clever about jargon when you’re dealing with the media because it only serves to confuse and alienate the reporter - and ultimately your true audience, the public. Jargon is lazy, it adds nothing and it’s just not quotable. 

A former colleague who’s now the medical reporter for an Australian television network told me it’s her biggest daily frustration. She is regularly forced to stop the cameras and ask the ‘talent’ to try again using plain, simple language her audience will understand.

Interestingly, there's now a push to encourage doctors to use simple language their patients will understand. And even scientists are getting a helping hand with this long-overdue web site.

Admittedly, some jargon cannot be avoided. A term might have such a specialised meaning or be so widely understood (like GFC) that a reporter has no choice but to use it. But you should still provide a brief definition of what it means if you want to avoid confusion.

I know it's sometimes hard to step back and simplify your work, particularly when you’re not used to dealing with the media. 

But if you want to reach and be understood by as many people as possible, drop the jargon, the bureaucratic expressions and the multi-syllabic words and choose simple, everyday language. Why say "facilitate" when you could just say "help"? Why go with "ultilise" when it so much easier to say "use"?

And forget the notion that you have to 'dumb it down'. It's actually about making it simpler so that everyone will understand what you are trying to say.

When explaining something complicated to a reporter, imagine you are explaining it to a teenager. If you can explain it in simple, digestable language that a teenager could easily repeat back to you, then it's much more likely you'll be interesting, and quotable.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What's the most annoying jargon you've heard?

You might also like to read:

The Jargon of Journalism

 

Need to hone your media skills? Contact Clarity today for more information. We'd love it if you'd help us reach a bigger audience, so feel free to share this post with your social networks.

  • Kylie Keogh
    2nd May 12 7:20 AM
    cops. worked there for 7 years and media trained more than 3000 of all ranks and a component of my training was getting rid of jargon! the feedback I got was that they went into "giving evidence" mode when talking on camera. But in the training with a lot of role playing it was noticeably reduced - thankfully! I used some very amusing examples of cops which there was no shortage of, and they would all cringe. They all agreed no one wanted to be seen publicly using phrases like "the offender decamped in an easterly direction" nor "life was pronounced extinct"!
  • Clarity
    2nd May 12 7:25 AM
    That's a great example Kylie. Our friends in blue are definitely consumed with jargon. I knew this would open a can of worms. - Bernard
  • Simon Barrett
    2nd May 12 9:45 AM
    I've been reading lots of press on a crisis at a NY law firm all week (Dewey & Leboeuf). They are obsessed with the word "transaction". I think what they are really talking about is a merger, a buyout or even a deal, but who can be sure. Typical lawyers.
  • Theresa Miller
    2nd May 12 12:54 PM
    Yes I agree... the police are the worse offenders...so to speak. I used to work on Australia's Most Wanted as a reporter and a policeman once said to me on camera: "The male caucasian was seen decamping from the scene in a westerly direction after the unlawful use of a vehicle"
    I asked: "You mean a man stole a car, dumped it and ran off?"
    "Affirmative."
  • Clarity
    2nd May 12 1:04 PM
    Thanks for sharing Theresa. Maybe we should have broadened the article instead of focusing purely on professional services. But then the poor old cops would win hands down. - Bernard
  • Sandra
    2nd May 12 2:23 PM
    Bernard, I've worked in a law firm and a small accounting firm and convincing partners to drop the jargon was often a futile exercise. Once or twice I was told that it was a journalists job to understand them! And they wonder why they were never quoted.
  • Clarity
    2nd May 12 2:32 PM
    Sandra, it can be hard work convincing lawyers and accountants to provide a simple insight. But when I put my training hat on, I find them really rewarding to work with, particularly when they have that light bulb moment and it all makes sense for them. Thanks for sharing. - Bernard