April 4, 2018

When is it okay to use jargon?


Sarah Durham: Hey, so I’m joined here today by my fearless creative director, Dan Gunderman. Hey, Dan.

Dan Gunderman: Hello. Nice to be here.

Sarah Durham: Welcome to the podcast. Dan is a writer par excellence. He’s been writing copy for 25 years. He’s been a Big Duck for almost 11. Right?

Dan Gunderman: More than 11. Yeah.

Sarah Durham: We’re also joined today with a silent member of the Big Duck team who is Dan’s dog, Fred Astaire. If you hear little dog noises in the background, that’s what’s going on.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. Probably most likely licking.

Sarah Durham: We’re going to talk today about jargon. Dan wrote a piece, and we’ll link to this in our show notes, called In Praise of Jargon: Three Times You Should Embrace It. I thought it was a really interesting idea to kind of embrace jargon. We often are trying to encourage our clients to get rid of it. We’re going to talk about that a little today.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. We definitely generally recommend you avoid it at all costs, but there are some times that it’s really useful.

Sarah Durham
: First, let’s define it. What is jargon? Can you give us some examples?

Dan Gunderman: Sure. I think of jargon often as very industry-specific terminology. Big Duck is a marketing agency. We use terms like positioning and personality. That is jargon. A lot of our clients need some education about what those things mean. We often use those terms freely, and we sometimes have to pause and explain exactly what we mean by that. We see that in the nonprofit world a lot as well. Certainly, health-related nonprofits have a ton of medical jargon that they need to define. We see that in disease-specific organizations especially. Other organizations might just have terminology that’s very common or used in specific circumstances that any general member of the public wouldn’t understand, or it would take them a second to get it.

Sarah Durham: One of the examples I often use is, a jargony term would be workforce development. The de-jargoned way of saying that might be we help people get jobs. What other examples are there?

Dan Gunderman: We’ve also worked with some organizations that do what they call community development. It ends up being a catchall terms that doesn’t say much in and of itself. We’re often encouraging them just to get more specific about what that means. Community development could be anything really from medical services that go directly into housing developments to programs that are within certain neighborhoods or even straight-up housing. Community development really has a huge meaning, but it’s used very commonly. It’s used commonly amongst audiences that don’t necessarily understand what you mean by that.

Sarah Durham: I like your definition of it as industry-specific language. I wonder is there a corollary between how deep or how specific or specialized an industry is and how jargony it gets.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. I think there definitely is. I think that when you see … We work with some B2B or business-to-business, there’s some jargon. Organizations where their audiences are going to know the shorthand in which they speak. They can get away with a lot more jargon, I think, than organizations that are trying to reach just your everyday donor who might be interested in your issue.

Sarah Durham: Let’s say, for instance, I work at a foundation that supports some area of scientific research. Most of the communications that I do on behalf of my foundation is focused on communicating with people who run nonprofits in this particular scientific area. Is it okay for me to use scientific jargon?

Dan Gunderman: They’ll probably get it. I think you’d be fine. When it comes to communicating, it really comes down to who your audience is and always being aware of who it is that you’re talking to. Almost all nonprofits need to reach donors. I think you can assume that most of your donors, not all of your donors but most of your donors, are probably a little bit less sophisticated about the specific issue that you’re dealing in. You just want to be especially careful when communicating with donors that you’re not using language that either confuses them or puts them off or makes them feel stupid.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Again, if it’s language that only you would know, or only people who are on the inside would know and your audience is not necessarily on the inside, maybe jargon is not so great. If your audience is just as inside as you are, maybe it’s okay to embrace it.

Dan Gunderman: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think some of the organizations that we work with want to reframe the discussion a little bit. I think that often jargon can be a very useful tool for doing that. It means you’re going to be taking a lot more effort. It’s going to take a lot more work for the organization to redefine things, but it can be really useful. We worked with an organization that deals with [prison rights], especially family members of people who are incarcerated or formerly incarcerated. Using terms like formerly incarcerated is the type of phrase that they would embrace as opposed to a prisoner or a former prisoner or an ex-con. They are really interested in framing the language around prison reform and incarcerated people. They’re trying to change the language around that. They created a whole lexicon around, “We don’t use this term. We do use that term.”

Sarah Durham: In that example, jargon is useful because it’s carefully providing language that might replace language that would be stigmatizing.

Dan Gunderman: That’s right.

Sarah Durham: Yeah. Great. Okay. If somebody is in a nonprofit and they’re doing a lot of writing or speaking on behalf of their organization and they’re trying to maybe de-jargon their work and make it a bit more accessible, how would you recommend they do that?

Dan Gunderman: There are a couple of ways. I sometimes imagine that I am writing for a smart stranger. That’s somebody who doesn’t understand at all the field that I’m working in, but they’re not an idiot either. I actually find in my own writing that sometimes I’ll run things by my wife. She’s very smart. She does not work in the same field that I work in. I feel like, if she can understand it, and nothing puts her off, then I’m doing a good job. She does the same for me. She works in a field that I’m not familiar with. She’ll sometimes run things by me. It’s also a field that is lousy with jargon. It’s the same question. If I can understand what she’s saying, and there’s nothing in there that really puts me off based on the jargon she’s using, then she’s in good shape.

Sarah Durham: Awesome. All right, Dan. Thanks for joining us to both Dan and Fred Astaire.

Dan Gunderman: Thank you.

The Smart Communications Podcast is hosted by Sarah Durham, CEO of Big Duck and produced by Marcus DePaula. Our music is by Broke for Free.
Dan Gunderman

Dan Gunderman is the Former Creative Director at Big Duck

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