Adley Stump acting like a White House spokesperson running through all the contradictory guidance we’ve received during the pandemic is great for a laugh. But she also perfectly captures the importance of providing clear, straightforward communication in a time of crisis. Otherwise, the words—all words, really—are meaningless.
One of the biggest writing mistakes I see in my job as copy chief is the use of jargon instead of simple, recognizable terms. I get why it happens. We write for Fortune-fantastic companies across myriad industries, most of them best in class. What would it look like if their content was, god forbid, really easy to understand? Surely it only makes their subject matter experts appear divine and all-knowing when they use eight-syllable noun clusters they learned in the AeroAstro program at MIT, right?
In fact, studies show that writing that contains industry jargon, whatever the industry, is off-putting and actually makes the material less approachable—and ultimately less trustworthy. People don’t like what they don’t understand, and in a world cluttered with information, all of it vying for eyeballs, it’s unlikely anyone will take the extra step of researching further to find out the meaning of your specialized vernacular. Instead, they abrogate— rather, they click away from the material altogether.
That’s not to say that people purposefully use jargon. Sometimes it’s simply the name for something. Biometric modalities. Cellulosic ethanol. Hedonistic utilitarianism. And other times the term is so ingrained in the culture of a place you don’t even realize that other readers wouldn’t understand it. “Surely everyone knows what distributed ledger technology is.” No, not everyone.
So how do you create content that’s gen-pub friendly? Here are a few tips.
- Read your article out loud. If you trip up somewhere, it’s likely that area needs simpler language and/or shorter sentences.
- Ask someone outside of your immediate circle of expertise to read the piece and flag anything they don’t readily understand.
- When you must use them, introduce hifalutin words with enough context that the reader will grasp the general idea.
- Try not to use too many jargon terms in one piece. Sometimes one or two are actually OK.
- Go easy on idioms, euphemisms and metaphors. When used in abundance, they make language more vague, which gives the reader license to make assumptions.
Mostly, just keep your audience in mind. Write for others as you would have them write for you. It’s one more courtesy we can extend to each other during these trying times, and it just may help you avoid their antipathy— ahem, keep their attention.