Jargon: the Enemy Within

Do You Speak EnglishA partner of mine once heard a talk by a man preparing to open a new hotel. He talked about the clientele he hoped to attract and, almost as a throwaway line, said, “And of course, we will address the SMERF market.”

Everyone stopped listening. He continued to plow ahead as the audience tried to figure out the role little blue people had in a hotel’s market. My partner finally raised her hand and asked what he meant by SMERF.

“Social, Military, Ethnic, Religious and Fraternal,” he said with a detectable measure of scorn in his voice. How could anyone not know that?

For him, SMERF was a commonplace term. He and his colleagues in the hospitality industry probably use it every day.  But its meaning was obscure to the audience. The speaker broke the continuity of his talk with that single phrase, leaving everyone behind.

Yet, only my partner raised her hand to ask him to explain himself. Most audiences don’t bother. They suffer in silence. People don’t like showing ignorance in front of others.

That’s why insider language is the enemy. You are likely to waste everyone’s time, including your own, if you approach your subject from your level of understanding instead of your audience’s. Oh, no one will say anything. They’ll force a smile when it’s over, say “thank you,” and walk out in the same state of ignorance with which they entered. In the meantime, your efforts to raise awareness will have left only confusion. Your desire to foster acceptance will have brought indifference. Your mission for action will still be sitting on the runway. And all because you did not trouble yourself to see the world from their eye level.

Jargon is insidious. We swim in the jargon of our professions like a fish swims in water, natural and unaware. That’s why we must make a special effort to learn about our intended audiences—and then take an extra step. Give a version of your talk to people who have about the same level of understanding as your intended audience. See how many pieces of jargon they can collect, how many obscure references they find, how many mysterious acronyms crop up. Collect them all, examine them, and rewrite your talk so that a child could understand it.

That’s not dumbing down. It’s using words for their intended purpose—to foster understanding.