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Use Jargon to Educate, Not Obfuscate
Posted on February 14th 2014
Whether we like it or not, jargon infiltrates nearly every field. Our doctors diagnose us with “pyrosis” (code for “heartburn”), our kid’s preschool teacher says to work on “spatial reasoning skills” (code for “do more puzzles”), and our neighbor down the street casually mentions the “A&P” (code for “administration and personnel” in the federal government)—and we think he’s talking about the grocery store.
Like everyone else, those of us in content marketing have our own jargon to wade through and decipher. I’ll use it sparingly in this blog post, but suffice it to say that we have plenty of multisyllabic words and acronyms — “user-generated content,” “lead nurturing,” “SEO,” “CRM,” “CMS.” I could go on.
When it comes to content marketing and the words you choose to craft your messages, tell your stories, build trust, and engage your audiences, when is it OK to use jargon? When is it not? If you do use it, how can you use it well?
While there aren’t any hard and fast rules, there are some things you need to consider when you select terms, words, and phrases for your blog posts, web copy, eBooks, and other content. After all, you’re not creating content for the people who work side by side with you in your office — you’re creating it for someone, somewhere on the outside. And you need to write accordingly.
Though jargon gets a bad rap (perhaps because Hemingway and his plain language was just so good, while the jargon-laden writing of the postmodern period was just so bad), jargon can, in fact, serve a purpose in content marketing. But you need to use it judiciously — and not earn a reputation as the engineer who speaks only “technical-ese” or the scientist who lives in a bubble on another planet. Keep these guidelines in mind, and your readers will be ever so thankful.
Know the difference between jargon and buzzwords
Many people confuse these two words. Jargon refers to domain-specific terminology, while buzzwords are typically metaphoric. Terms that count as jargon have a specific meaning, while buzzwords (or catch phrases) are typically used for effect.
Consider these examples. In marketing, we use terms like click-through rate and conversion rate to describe the success of certain online campaign actions. These are domain-specific (i.e., content marketing or marketing) terms with precise meanings. The information technology industry is full of jargon, and they are famous (or infamous) for turning much of it into acronyms, like MDM (master data management), BSM (business service management), or NFC (near-field communication). All are examples of jargon.
Buzzwords, on the other hand, rely on metaphor. We take a “brick-and-mortar” approach to business, we help narrow the “digital divide,” we work in the “information superhighway,” and we follow “netiquette.”
Both buzzwords and jargon serve a purpose. Just use them sparingly.
When in doubt, explain your terms
You’ve heard the saying better safe than sorry. This is similar. If you don’t think your audiences know what “sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia” means, chances are, they don’t. Simply add a brief reference to explain, such as, “I experience sphenopalatine ganglionerualgia, or an ice cream headache, every time I eat frozen yogurt.”
As a rule of thumb, write out the full name of something before you abbreviate it with an acronym. For instance, when you upload your story to your content management system (CMS), make sure you omit all egregious uses of jargon. From that point forward, you can use the shortened version, CMS, or the longer form, content management system, and in both instances, people will know what you’re talking about.
Link to more info
Thank goodness for the digital age, when you can link out to remarkable content that explains things so well. This comes in handy especially when you sense your audience may need some background info to fully grasp your point, and you want to keep your content tight and focused, without venturing off on a tangent.
If your post is about jargon, for instance, and you want to show some classic examples of jargon-heavy copy (and what not to strive for in content marketing), you can link out to postmodern theorist Donna Harraway’s description of a cyborg. Or if you want to reference global efforts to cut down on the use of jargon, you can link to the United Kingdom-based Plain English Campaign, which has been “fighting for crystal-clear communications since 1979.”
Don’t misuse it
When you do use jargon, the last thing you want to do is misuse it. We all know examples of celebrities and politicians mistaking one term for another, or making up a new word altogether. As I mentioned, jargon words have specific meanings. Earlier I used the jargon examples of click-through rates and conversion rates, and while these two terms could seem similar to some people, in our industry, we know that someone who clicks is not at all the same as someone who actually converts.
In this sense, jargon serves a real purpose — and allows you to hone in on nuances and make subtle distinctions. Most companies and businesses need this kind of specificity to convey who they are, what they do, how they do it, and why they do it.
Many jargon words are highly technical or scientific. Things like subject-verb agreement can get tricky, and when misaligned can detract from your professionalism and credibility. Make sure you double- and triple-check for correct usages of grammar. Always have someone else review it because you can have the best story in the world, but if you have typos and grammar errors, you’re going to come across as second-best.
So just remember: when you do use jargon, use it to educate, not obfuscate. The point of your content is to inform, connect, and engage with your audiences. You don’t get any points for fancy words and phrases. You get points for writing something clear and compelling.
What jargon do you use (or stray from) in your content? Do you have any content examples of where jargon or buzzwords have gone wrong? Let me know in the comments.