Forget Jargon and Clichés; Write and Speak in Plain English

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Has this ever happened to you? You are on the phone with a potential client. They ask a few warm-up questions to break the ice and get to know you better. The interview seems to be going well. Or so you think. Until the interviewer – a high-level marketing exec – begins to ask questions filled with marketing buzzwords you are not familiar with.

How would you respond? What would you say?

I was in a similar situation a few months ago. When the marketing exec I spoke with began using marketing jargon, I suddenly felt ill-at-ease. I felt excluded from the conversation. I’m not a marketing person. I’m a writer and editor who happens to occasionally write marketing copy. If someone starts talking about SEO strategy and marketing ROI, my eyes glaze over.

My job as a writer is to communicate as clearly as possible with readers. I can’t get held up by industry jargon and buzzwords that might mean something to the company but does not communicate clearly with their audience. To truly understand what this exec wanted me to write for her organization would have taken far more time and effort to ask loads of questions, and I suspected she did not have the patience to answer them. Naturally, I did not get the assignment with this client.

Browse any corporate report and leadership communications, and you’ll see they are filled with industry jargon and clichés that confuse readers and don’t present the organization in a positive light. Jargon is language specific to a business or industry often consisting of acronyms, abbreviations and specialty vocabulary that’s used as a shortcut to meaning among those who understand it. The other problem in business writing is clichés, those overused phrases that really have no meaning at all, such as “game changer,” “value add,” and “blue-sky thinking.” (For a good list of these clichés, check out this recent Forbes article and this one on PlainLanguage.gov.)

If you want to distinguish yourself and connect better with readers, then you need to speak and write what you mean in plain English. In other words, watch your language.

How can these problems be fixed? Here are a few tips from Business.com to help your business writing become crystal clear without relying on jargon and clichés.

1. Know your audience. What is their demographic? Their education level? Once you identify your audience, speak in their language, not your own. If your audience is a department of IT professionals, of course, your language will consist of IT buzzwords because they are more likely to understand them. But if your audience is made up of customers, you’ll want to speak as plainly as possible.

2. Don’t dress up your message. Naturally, you want to come across as sincere and knowledgeable, but don’t gloss over the message by using longer words and convoluted language. That will only muddy your message and create confusion. You don’t want to make your message sound more impressive than it really is. If you need to communicate to employees that several people were laid off, say: “Because of the company’s poor sales performance the past year, we had to fire several people from our sales and marketing staff.” End of story.

3. Use shorter words and sentences. Studies have shown that shorter speeches and messages are easier to remember over the long term.

4. Avoid using acronyms and abbreviations. According to PlainLanguage.gov, abbreviations are often published in an inconsistent format. For example, IBM vs. I.B.M. Sometimes, abbreviations appear only once in a document so it makes no sense to include them in your communications. The general rule I follow is to spell out the full company name the first time it is mentioned followed by its acronym in parenthesis, then use the abbreviation for all subsequent mentions. For example, I would write the National Association of Realtors (NAR) for the first mention, then NAR for all other subsequent mentions in the same story.

5. Edit your message. Review and rewrite it until it sounds right. You can usually cut the first draft in half. It might be helpful to read it out loud so you can hear how it sounds to your own ears, or read it to one or two other people who can provide feedback.

Your communications don’t have to be complex and confusing. Keep it simple. When you use plain English to write or speak your message, you will not only communicate more clearly and succinctly, you will win the respect of your audience.

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