The dangers of using jargon at work

There was a really interesting news story yesterday about the use of jargon at work. A judge criticised a social worker for over-using jargon in a report for a family court hearing. The judge said it 'might as well have been written in a foreign language.'

The social worker used phrases including ‘imbued with ambivalence’ and ‘having many commonalities emanating from their histories’. Another example was ‘I asked her to convey a narrative about her observations.’

What, the judge asked reasonably, was wrong with ‘I asked her to tell me?’

Other social workers may well have understood what their colleague was trying to say.  But even they would have spent more time reading her words than if she had used more straightforward English.  Most importantly, the woman who the report was about wouldn’t have understood all of it.

Many people slip into using jargon at work because they think it is somehow expected of them. Some believe that using complicated terms makes them sound official, formal, serious and maybe even clever.

But there’s nothing clever about using big words and industry-speak. It’s far cleverer to write in a way that ALL your readers can understand, and to explain things clearly and succinctly.

I am fascinated by the use of jargon at work, and why so many people continue to use gobbledegook and management speak instead of simple English. I often ask this question to delegates at my workshops.  One told me that it is expected of her and helps her justify her day rate.  Others aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

Of course, every industry has its jargon and if you’re sure your reader knows what you’re talking about, it can be useful shorthand. For instance, I’ll happily chat to other experienced journalists about NIBs and DPSs because they’ll know what I mean and it’s quicker for both of us.

But if I’m giving feedback to my journalism students, I’ll talk about news in briefs and double page spreads and what exactly those terms mean. Just bandying about the jargon would mean I wasn’t doing my job properly, as I wouldn’t be thinking of my reader. 

Jargon is powerful – it can make your reader feel excluded, inexperienced or stupid. It can confuse the reader and waste their time if they have to unravel what you mean. So before you use any sort of jargon, ask yourself whether you really need to and what purpose it is serving. If it will save you and your reader time then go ahead. But more often than not, you can and should replace it with more straightforward English.

Read the full story here.