Crossing the jargon divide. Stop using insider jargon for external communications

Crossing the jargon divide.
Stop using insider jargon for external communications

Workplace or internal jargon can be problematic. It’s not clear to everyone what certain phrases mean. Think of “looping someone in” or “low-hanging fruit” as examples of overused corporate jargon. But what about “frequent flyer” in a healthcare context – would you know what this means?    

Jargon isn’t all bad. It’s an effective way of saving time (while communicating meaning) within a community who share common characteristics. Whether that’s Underwriters, Operations teams or Customer Experience (CX) experts. These “insiders” communicate meaning efficiently with jargon. Everyone speaks a common institutionalized jargon filled form of English. Think of the medical profession. That’s perfectly ok, as long as the parties in the conversation belong to that club.

As Mark Morgioni, Director of Research & Data at Slate writes:

“Every profession and workplace has its own vernacular. “Stakeholders”’ is shorter than ‘the people who will be most affected by this work and therefore should be included in any decisions’”.

If you’re in the community, you’re likely to be fluent in the insider language. Back to our earlier example. If you are an insider in the healthcare industry, you will know that a “frequent flyer” is a patient who comes into hospital often. It is meaningful. To you and your peers, that is.

Jargon is a time-saver, but only if you’re “in the club”.

When jargon jars

Issues with jargon arise when it’s used to communicate with people “outside the club”. For example, Investment Advisers know what they mean by “hurdle rate”. It’s the minimum return a business needs before deciding to launch a project or product. However, use it in an email to customers (perhaps small business owners), and it’s likely to cause confusion. If the reader doesn’t know the term, they will feel excluded. They’re likely to trust you less. Nobody wants to feel confused or excluded. And this is what happens when you use language that is abstract, or insider speak and unclear. We all know the feeling of being excluded, and nobody likes that. Think about the effect on your brand.

Maddie Crum details this in her article “Why Workplace Jargon Is A Big Problem” in the HuffPost:  

“In addition to preventing clarity, vague language generates less trust. A not-so-shocking study conducted by psychology professors at New York University in 2011 concluded that abstract language leads listeners to believe a speaker is lying more often than concrete language does”.

Jargon in times of crisis

There’s an even bigger risk of using jargon now, due to COVID-19. The crisis comes with its own breed of terms that have slipped into our language almost without us realizing.

Let’s take some examples:

Zoom

The popularity of this online video conferencing provider has soared during lockdown. The word “zoom” has taken on new meaning. It’s now regularly used as a verb – “can we zoom?” The Mexican food chain Chipotle has been hosting virtual gatherings on Zoom throughout the lockdown. This tweet invites its community to “hang on zoom”, offering no explanation as to what “zoom” actually is.

Paycheck Protection Program

Citibank’s “Response to COVID-19” section of their website links to an article. Its title is “Using Proceeds from the Paycheck Protection Program to Support Small Businesses and CDFIs”. This headline requires you to understand what the Paycheck Protection Program is, and the meaning of the acronym CDFI.

Citi never explains what the Payment Protection Program (PPP) is. That it’s a loan to motivate small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll throughout COVID-19. The piece covers how Citi is using profits earned through PPP to support disadvantaged communities. It’s a noble endeavor. A shame that many of its customers won’t grasp the full meaning because of the jargon used.

WFH

WFH is shorthand for working from home. It crept into our lockdown lexicon within a matter of days following the government’s guidelines on remote working. Articles like this one advise on how to conduct “WFH meetings”, without once explaining what WFH means. If you weren’t already aware of this acronym, you’d need to Google it.

Avoid jargon to improve Customer Experience (CX)

We’ve written before about why complexity is killing your CX. Using complex words leaves your customer feeling confused. She doesn’t have time to search for meaning in your communications. Never mind having to call your contact center for clarification. This is especially relevant in a pandemic. Customers are likely to be even more burdened than usual. And using insider jargon-filled language in your communications strategy is not smart.

When you communicate in terms your customers aren’t familiar with, you’re adding extra barriers to their understanding. You’re forcing them to seek clarification from your website or contact center. This breaks CX and erodes their trust. So to offer the best CX possible, you must avoid using insider jargon, or at minimum explain yourself.

Here’s what you should do:

1. Identify your jargon

Do this internally first. Work with your teams to come up with all the words you use that customers might not understand. Bring in colleagues from all departments – from Product to Operations and Marketing. Then make sure you test with “outsiders”. People who don’t work in your industry. Start by canvassing people in your own circle, either friends or family. And, if you can, set up a customer focus group. Identify sample communications. For instance, if you’re an insurance provider, test your claim letters, your renewal letters.

2. Create a list of internal jargon

Once you’ve finished step 1, create a list of the corporate jargon your business must avoid. Add this to your style guide, so writers always know which words they shouldn’t use externally. Offer some alternatives. If you work in healthcare, perhaps you always want cardiovascular disease changed to heart disease.

3. Remove jargon from external communications & use quality check tools

One of the biggest challenges about removing jargon is how do you check the copy?

If you work in a larger business or government agency, you will have a lot of content coming from a variety of departments. HR, Operations, Sales and of course marketing and communications. This content is diverse and often written by non-professional writers who are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). These include offline content, for example; letters and compliance notices. And also online communications ranging from blog posts to product brochures.

You can use a modern breed of tools like VT Readability, to create a list of Watch Words that flag jargon as you type. For example, let’s say your writer enters text containing the phrase cardiovascular disease into VT Readability. Then it will prompt him to swap it for heart disease.


So is jargon good or bad?

We’re not advocating for a blanket ban on internal jargon. Language evolves, and new words and terms are born every minute. Especially during significant events, such as the current COVID-19 crisis. We turn to language to make sense of what is happening, and to give it a name. Using shared language with our peers makes us feel part of our wider community. And jargon works when you’re an insider.

But it fails when you use it for communicating with an ‘outsider’ audience.

Don’t let jargon creep into your external communications by accident. Don’t let the operational challenges of remote work impact the clarity of your communications. Don’t assume your audience understands the jargon you use. It could harm your customers’ trust and loyalty. It’s not hard to stop the jargon. Can you afford not to?

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