I was at a talk the other day and the speaker mentioned SEO. Some people in the audience (myself included) didn’t bat an eyelid; others looked panicked and confused. (For those of you who have just seen “SEO” and had the second reaction, it’s short for Search Engine Optimisation and it refers to the strategies you can use to make sure a webpage is as high up as possible in Google results.)
SEO is a perfect example of jargon – words or phrases that only make sense to a certain group of people and are difficult for anyone not in that group to understand. Every field has its jargon, even when you think it doesn’t.
In its place, it’s perfectly OK to use it. But used in the wrong place, it can be very damaging.
When is it OK to use jargon?
To be able to answer this, you need to understand the audience you’re talking to. If you’re writing something for people who are in the same field as you, it’s probably OK to use jargon.
If you’re writing something for people who aren’t in the same field as you, you have two choices. Use it but explain it. Or don’t use it in the first place. The ‘use it but explain it’ approach can be useful for establishing your credibility as an expert – useful in situations when you’re selling a service and want people to know you’re at the cutting edge of whatever it is you do. I’d suggest that in any other context, ‘don’t use it’ is the best approach: jargon you don’t understand is very off-putting because it prevents you from understanding something as quickly as possible – or even at all.
Why is it so important to watch your use of jargon when you’re writing?
When you’re communicating face to face, it’s easy to spot when something you’ve said has gone over someone’s head and you can help them out with an explanation. When someone’s reading what you’ve written, you can’t. If you’ve used jargon that goes over your reader’s head, the best you can expect is that they will read it but not understand it. The more likely result is that they’ll turn the page. Either way, you haven’t got your message across and your writing has failed.
Three top tips where jargon is concerned
- Read it through as if you’re the target audience
- Get a member of your target audience to read it
- And most importantly, if you’re in any doubt, err on the side of caution and don’t use it.
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