Just Say No … to Jargon

Just do it.
Think different.
The real thing.

These indelible slogans are embedded in advertising lore as well as in the psyches of billions of people around the world, demonstrating that the most successful use of language is simple, straightforward and unpretentious.

When it comes to content, simplicity is king.

Yet, the content marketing industry often chooses complexity, opting for jargon in lieu of plain and to-the-point language. This is problematic in myriad ways. Besides being anathema to those who value intelligent speech, it can create a disconnect between marketers and their clients. When faced with words or expressions they’re not used to, clients may feel alienated or condescended to in their efforts to learn a new “language.” It also encourages those who jargonize — yes, that’s a real (and horrible) word — to rely on lazy, go-to terms and phrases rather than communicating more effectively and authentically. (All subsequent jargon will henceforth appear in italics.)

Merriam-Webster defines jargon as “the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group,” but additional definitions include words such as “obscure,” “confused” and “unintelligible,” going so far as to add “a strange, outlandish, or barbarous language or dialect.”

Every business or organization has its own shorthand language, just like groups of people such as friends and families. But, does that mean an industry dedicated to distilling marketable, nay, snackable, messages for target audiences should traffic in “outlandishness” and “barbarity”?

In 2010, sociologist Karen Sternheimer wrote in “The Sociology of Jargon” that “social groups create special language — like jargon — in part to make communication shortcuts, but mostly to clearly delineate who is a member and who is not. Members understand the lingo and learn to speak it fluently.”

This Lord of the Flies explanation may make sense for internal use — colleagues working together in the content marketing field are wont to use jargon as a means of shorthand — but is it that much harder, or does it take considerably longer, to say conceiving rather than surfacing ideas? What about plainly getting together for a meeting to discuss new concepts rather than ideating, which — from the sound of it — could be a new dance move, Christopher Nolan movie or practically anything else?  

If everyone is speaking in the same buzzwords, then jargon arguably makes sense. In working with clients, however, particularly those who are not members of the content marketing social group, jargon may seem alienating. Some customers might respond with the erroneous belief that those spouting jargon know things that they don’t, and therefore have the knowhow and knowledge to do a good job. This could easily backfire, though, with the client feeling patronized or even foolish for not understanding the language that’s being spoken.

Using jargon can also make the speaker sound canned, unoriginal and — gasp! — dated, perhaps the greatest transgression in an industry that prides itself on being cutting edge, disruptive and capable of thinking outside the box. If the jargonizer, a word that I just made up and not-so-secretly hope becomes part of the lexicon of, well, jargon, isn’t up on the latest lingo, then they run the risk of recommending a client be platform agnostic rather than the au courant omnichannel. In the currency of today’s culture, that’s as telling — and embarrassing — as encouraging someone to “treat yo self” or sassily retorting “yas queen” long after these catchphrases are funny or surprising. And although there is no quantitative measurement for just the right time to stop using a tired expression, one is likely to find out by the number of eyerolls and groans they encounter in their next Monday morning meeting. (See: Michael Scott)

There is a simple way, however, to avoid these pitfalls. It’s akin to a basic life tenet: Do what you say and say what you mean, with an emphasis on the say what you mean part. Clarity, concision and unfussiness is always the best bet — in writing and speaking, to any and every audience. It is the best way to ensure that what you say will never be devoid of meaning.

Ironically, the best way to truly be authentic is arguably the easiest: Use plain English. Doing otherwise may result in the complete opposite effect of what marketing is meant to accomplish — being timely and timeless, indelible and unforgettable.

So, remember: When it comes to jargon, just (don’t) do it. 

Written by Leigh Flayton

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