When you’re writing for your business it can be tempting to use big words and industry-specific terms more often than you probably should. It makes you good to use all those terms – you’ve spent the time researching, learning and understanding. You should have every right to use that fancy jargon, don’t you?
The truth is, yes, you have. Unfortunately, using too much technical or industry jargon will cost you in the long run. Just because you and others working in your industry know what you’re talking about, doesn’t mean your general audience does. If you want to keep your readers attention, you want to keep things as clear as possible – especially if you want those readers to become paying customers in the future.
But what is considered “jargon” and what is not? What about cases where you simply cannot avoid using jargon? How do you find the balance and make sure that everyone understands? Read on.
What Is “Jargon” in Business Writing?
Let’s start off by defining “jargon” for the industry you’re writing in. There are of course, generic jargon phrases – like “moving forward” or “reinvent the wheel” or “take it to the next level.” These phrases, while not industry-specific, are often overused and unnecessary – but we will talk more about them later.
Then you have acronyms – like USDA or SEO – that, without prior knowledge, are incomprehensible. In this example, USDA stands for United States Department of Agriculture while SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization.
Without being a lawyer or having worked in a law office, you might never have heard to term “nolo contendere” or “no contest” – a plea option for those being charged with crimes in court. If you don’t work in finance, “third-party origination” probably doesn’t have much meaning. Similarly, if you aren’t involved in the structural end of business, you might not have a clue what “vertical integration” is.
Why You Should Avoid Using Too Much Jargon
These are all forms of jargon – but acronyms and industry-specific jargon are the most detrimental to your business writing. This is where you’re going to lose your readers because they just can’t figure out what you’re talking about. The good news is there is an easy fix – use less jargon phrases.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
That Albert Einstein quote says it all – if you feel the need to fall back on industry-specific jargon phrases to get your point across, then you don’t know what you’re talking about as well as you think you do.
The main reason for dropping jargon phrases is for clarity and readability. You want anyone to be able to understand what you’re talking about. A good rule of thumb is, would a 13- or 14-year-old be able to understand what you wrote? If not, then you might want to consider doing some revising.
Keep Things Simple so Your Message Is Clear
Avoiding jargon might seem like you’re dumbing things down – but really, you’re just catering to a wider audience. You can’t expect every customer or entry level industry hopeful to know what you’re talking about if you fill your content with a bunch of jargon only industry pros would understand.
Do your best to use everyday words in your copy – no matter what you’re writing. It could be an email, a blog post, a press release or a white paper; it doesn’t matter. You want everything from your directions for your web designer to your marketing materials to be as clear as day, leaving nothing to interpretation.
Clarity is so important in business writing. You don’t want to leave people guessing on what you want or what you can do for them. In the long run, keeping things simple and easily understood will save you – and your potential customers – time.
Another benefit of keeping things simple – especially when it comes to website copy and blog posts – is that people are more likely to search general terms, as well as industry-specific ones. If you’re trying to use blog posts and keywords to help your business get found online, using a healthy mixture of general and industry-specific terms is a must.
After all, people are more likely to Google “Lawyers in City Name, State” before they go specific and search something like “Estate Planning Lawyer in City Name, State.”
How to Use Jargon When You Can’t Avoid It
Sometimes, you just can’t avoid using jargon. However, there are times when it is both acceptable and even expected. In the above Google search example, you would’ve had to use “Estate planning lawyer” at some point, as well as something more general like “Lawyer in City Name, State” to be found in both searches.
Depending on the type of content, it may even be appropriate to use some industry-specific terms. Sticking with the real estate example – you might have to use terms that are industry-specific but generally well understood, like “open house” or “closing.” Most people searching for a home – or looking to sell theirs – will understand the concept of an open house as a chance to show the home to prospective buyers. Similarly, most would be able to determine that “closing” refers to closing the sale – the day the sale on the home becomes final.
When it comes to acronyms, you should always use the full phrase the first time, with the acronym in parenthesis. From that point on, you can use the shortened version. For example, if you’re talking about the United States Post Office (USPS) you should make sure to write it out fully the first time, like in this sentence. From that point on, any time you reference the USPS you can freely use the acronym, knowing your readers now know what it means.
When it comes to any other jargon that is less likely to be known by your general audience, a good rule of thumb is to define it. Just as we defined “jargon” for you at the start of this article, you should define any jargon words or phrases that are not widely known but are necessary to use.
Some Common Jargon Phrases You Shouldn’t Use
As we touched upon earlier, there are just some phrases that you should really work to avoid using altogether. It’s not that you aren’t getting your point across – but more that these cliché phrases water down the importance of your original message. A lot of the time, we use these phrases only because in the moment, we can’t think of a better way to put it.
Here are a few of the most common business phrases to avoid:
“At the end of the day”
Sometimes, these phrases are all filler. If you really need a time phrase, a single word like "finally" or "ultimately" is better, but you can also simply cut this one. Try leaving off the jargon and see if your sentence reads fine without it.
"Think outside the box”
Oftentimes, people use this phrase when talking to new recruits to a company or when encouraging creative thinking. Why not simply say, “we need more creativity”?
This one can be replaced with “easy” or “simple” or anything of the sort.
Rather than telling someone you want to “touch base later” it might be more effective to plan a follow-up on a specific date.
Why not simply say that you need to set up a meeting with someone?
“It is what it is”
Anyone who has ever heard this from their boss can tell you, hearing it doesn’t make it any better. Why not just skip the patronizing and move on?
The truth is, not all jargon is bad – but there are plenty of reasons you should avoid stuffing your content full of it. Some of it – like these phrases – are simply overused clichés that everyone uses but no one really likes. Other times, it’s just confusing for customers or those who are new to your industry.
You won’t always be able to avoid jargon in your business writing but knowing when and how to use it will make your copy more effective. Clarity in your business writing will increase productivity and satisfaction – and this goes for your employees as well.