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

By Business.com Editorial Staff
Business.com / Technology / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Jargon can be useful, but not when we are talking about things that are not technical. Know why people use jargon, and why you shouldn’t.

"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 he would end heartfelt messages to his sister that was getting divorced and his father who was sick with “LOL.” 

Sometimes what we mean is not what we say. Sometimes that’s because we really don’t know what we’re talking about, but want to sound like we do. Other times it’s a way to prevent others from really 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.


Related Article: How to Improve Workplace Communication to Further Success

Why We Use Jargon

Allison Linn in "USA Today" traces the uses 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 those products’ 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.

Do You Speak English; Technical Jargon

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.

Related Article: The Shocking Truth: Why Every Company Is a Technology Company

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, to-the-point language. Maybe instead of telling people how to “execute a strategy” you explain “how to get something done.”
  • Avoid buzzwords, acronyms and anything that sounds “highfalutin.” 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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