I thought it time to return to my Top 5 reasons for avoiding jargon. So, here’s Reason #3: using jargon can alienate your audience.
When you’re communicating with someone for business purposes — whether you’re writing, making a presentation, or just speaking — you consciously and subconsciously make an assessment of the audience’s intellect and level of expertise. Indeed, to create “reader-focused” writing (or listener-focused speaking), which should always be one of your business communication goals, you must make such assessments.
But, even when you think your audience is very bright or highly educated, it’s a good idea to avoid using jargon because if folks don’t understand what you’re saying, you risk alienating, or irritating, them.
I can share a recent experience I had with something I read that left me feeling stupid and, ultimately, irritated. On Sandy Kemsley’s recommendation (Sandy’s blamed — or credited — with being the friend who persuaded me that business blogging’s a good thing), I decided to read Naked conversations: how blogs are changing the way businesses talk with customers, by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.
While I found most of the book quite interesting, I nearly stopped reading after Chapter 2, which is titled, “Everything never changes”. I don’t mind admitting that when I’m reading, I often gloss over chapter titles — especially when they don’t say much to me. I usually don’t get too bothered by a title I “don’t get”, because I figure it’s just a title.
So, though the title didn’t make much sense to me, I continued reading. It quickly became apparent that the title refers to a conversation Shel Israel had with futurist-philosopher John Naisbitt (author of Megatrends). Israel had commented to Naisbitt that he felt that as a result of September 11th, everything had changed. To this statement, Naisbitt apparently replied:
“Everything never changes,” he said. “Something has changed and it impacts everything else. Your life is the same. People go to the same jobs, in the same places. They go home to the same families and watch the same TV programs. Everything never changes. Something changed and that something will impact a great deal. But life as we know it will continue”.
My initial reaction was “say what?” I had to reread the quote and the chapter a number of times before I even got a sense that I might have an inkling of what Naisbitt was saying.
Though the words themselves are pretty ordinary, the statement “everything never changes” basically amounts to jargon because it’s intended as a short-hand way of making a particular point. In this case, it seems the author coined this seemingly clever catchphrase in hopes it will ring true and be memorable.
Unfortunately, my reaction to the cleverness was not particularly warm. Indeed, the need to reread it and puzzle over it irritated me to the point that I almost put down the entire book. In such cases, I figure either the authors don’t care enough about the audience to explain things in such a way that an otherwise interest reader (me) had a hope of getting through it in one read, or, worse, that the authors hadn’t refined their thoughts to the point that they could make it understandable.
Fortunately, Chapter 2 is one of the shorter chapters in the book. I soldiered on and finished the book, the rest of which was straightforward and interesting. Maybe in future editions the authors will re-think that chapter, realizing that yielding to Naisbitt’s jargon is a strategy that could backfire.