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Cut the Code: Why Speaking In Technical Jargon Is Not Making You Look Smarter

business.com editorial staff
business.com editorial staff

Jargon causes a problem when you are talking to someone who doesn't understand it, or, worse, misuses it.

  • When you are speaking to those who do not understand the technical jargon you are using, you should keep it simple.
  • We use jargon because it has been proven to be an effective method of attracting customers and selling products.
  • Jargon should be used when speaking to "technical" employees; that is, employees whose jobs are technical (i.e., IT), but you should eschew jargon with employees who perform non-technical roles in your company.

"I need to check that server's IP host and verify its blacklist reputation," you said maybe never.

Whether it is something you actually understand depends on whether or not you are a techie. For a technical audience, all of the above terminologies is self-explanatory and something you can do with a tool like the MX Toolbox website.

But for those of us who think a blacklist is something that prevents people from getting a job, we have no business looking up a host's reputation unless we're looking for a Facebook page of someone who has invited us to a party. 

In certain cases, jargon provides a concise description of an activity to those who understand the terms. It causes a problem, however, when you are talking to someone who doesn't understand the jargon or, worse, misuses it.

Consider text speak. Adam Gopnik kept getting messages from his son that ended with LOL and thought it meant "lots of love." So Gopnik would end heartfelt messages to his sister who was getting divorced and his father, who was sick, with "LOL." 

Sometimes, what we mean is not what we say. And that can stem from not truly understanding what we're talking about, but we want to sound like we do. Other times, it's a way to prevent others from understanding what we're doing.

But there are times when jargon is a way for technical people to try to come to terms with the limited understanding of the rest of us.

What is considered technical jargon?

For those who are yet unfamiliar, according to Your Dictionary, technical jargon is a term used to describe terminology that can only be understood by those with a technical background. Rather than using normal, easy-to-grasp words that can be easily understood by everyone, jargon is a type of shorthand that is used to simplify communications among certain groups. It typically involves the use of words and phrases that are otherwise meaningless, when taken out of context. Moreover, it is different from slang in that slang is an informal use of language, while jargon is simply a collection of terms and phrases that can only be understood by certain groups of people.

According to Brain Chemistry, the following are some examples of technical jargon:

  • Unicorn (a startup company)
  • Pivot (changing directions of a business)
  • BIS (Business intelligence systems)
  • MA (Marketing automation)

Why we use jargon

Allison Linn in USA Today traces the use of technical jargon to appeal to the mainstream back to the 1980s when Apple and Microsoft were trying to explain why a personal computer would be of any interest to general consumers.

"Instead of saying that Microsoft Office software would do boring tasks like compile data … Microsoft sought to sell it as a 'solution' to everyday problems … Steve Jobs promot[ed] the 'experience' of using an Apple computer way back in 1984 – before many people could see why they'd want one these pricey, clunky boxes in their homes."

They were so successful that today every product is presented as a solution to something, and we evaluate a product's effectiveness in terms of user experience. And it's also why marketing people use such terms as "scalable," "enterprise," "interface," and "stickiness" when what they mean is something can get bigger, a business, a meeting or interaction with someone, and the ability to hold someone's interest.

As noted by The Conversation, technical "sublanguage" starts out as a shorthand to speed processes and clarify complex situations while also reinforcing group solidarity by creating exclusive terminology. The problem becomes that initially outsiders don't understand it. It becomes worse when outsiders adopt the terminology in order to sound as if they, too, are part of the group or sound smarter.

When to use jargon and when not to

As Nicole Radzwill point out in Quality and Innovation, "The use of jargon – or the avoidance of jargon – can either communicate competence in a field or alienate people who need to know more about it. Awareness of whether a term or phrase is jargon can help us understand whether we are communicating accurately."

Here are some tips on how to communicate more accurately.

  • Identify your audience and speak their language. CIOs speak differently to their technical teams than they do to "regular" employees (or at least they should).

  • Don't dress things up. It's actually kind of amazing how well plain language stands out from the onslaught of jargon. People tend to pay more attention when they can actually follow what you're saying.

  • Keep it short. Short sentences are easier to understand than long, convoluted ones. Short speeches are more memorable than lengthy, meandering ones. The classic example is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. It’s about 270 words long.

  • Use simple words. This doesn't mean "talking down" to people as if they are children. It means using plain, direct language. Maybe instead of telling people how to "execute a strategy," you explain "how to get something done."

  • Avoid buzzwords and acronyms. If you know everyone in the room is going to know what your jargon means (the CIO talking to the tech team), go ahead and buzz away. Just don't fall into the habit. If you go home and ask your spouse how the day scoped out and if they encountered any problems in navigation structure in getting anywhere, you may need to join a 12-step program.

  • Edit. Mozart supposedly wrote a symphony in one draft. He is the exception. Think of how you can cut at least half of whatever it is you are going to say. That will be music to the ears of most people.
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