When to use jargon, and when not to

Jargon doesn’t always deserve its bad name.

It’s true that clarity trumps complexity, and that buzzwords are a business blight. But in technical industries covering a specialised topic, you need to use (at least some) specialised language.

This jargon grey area can distance tech businesses from their customers. How do you communicate competence in a field, without alienating users who need to learn more about it?

Here’s a closer look at when to use jargon, and when not to.

Why jargon gets a bad rap

First, it’s important to understand why jargon is so commonly criticised in the business community. Jargon is, by nature, the antithesis of plain language. And plain language makes it easier for your audience to understand and use communications – either written or spoken.

So, when you use jargon, you risk driving a wedge between your business and its customers. Website visitors might struggle to digest your content. New users might find your setup instructions impenetrable. And customers might feel stupid on the other end of a tech support call.

At the simplest possible level, then, jargon can hurt your business.

The flipside

The flipside is that plain language isn’t always possible. In tech, for example, jargon is often necessary simply to communicate about a niche topic.

Let’s take our own niche – business process automation. To chat to a customer about setting up their ThinkAutomation account, we’d need to talk about, say, optical character recognition, or DNS servers, or Bayesian filters. (This list could stretch on indefinitely.)

Though these terms might seem like jargon, they’re actually core vernacular required to convey meaning. Simpler substitutes either don’t exist, or would create imprecise messaging.

The point is that sometimes, jargon is both unavoidable and needed. It’s the language of the field. And to those within that field, jargon is far from confusing – but rather a conveyor of accuracy and understanding.

When to use jargon

You’ll need jargon when you’re talking to a technical audience about a technical topic. Using vague layman’s translations in a specialist industry conversation is only going to obscure meaning.

Plus, if you fail to use the correct terminology, you risk appearing incompetent. (Or even patronising towards the user.)

Where the jargon in question is relevant to the topic, and refers to a specific entity with no everyday alternative, you’re fine to use it. In such instances, “jargon” is better thought of as terminology.

When not to use jargon

This needed use of jargon doesn’t give free rein to complex language. The KISS (keep it simple, stupid) principle is still a best practice.

So, don’t use jargon when you’re not talking about a specialist topic. Don’t use jargon when you’re talking to someone who lacks field knowledge. And don’t use jargon for the sake of it, because you think it sounds smart. (Realistically, if you’re using jargon unnecessarily then you’re more likely to sound pretentious.)

This common-sense approach to jargon can be easier said than done, though. So, there are a few rules of thumb we’d advise.

Jargon rules of thumb

  • Know your audience

What type of user typically engages with your technology? Is your website targeted at a niche demographic, or the general public? Are those two answers aligned? (I.e., is the end user of your technology the same person who would have researched the product online and made the purchase decision?)

Knowing your audience means knowing where and when to use jargon appropriately. For example, you might need jargon in your help files, but not across your site landing pages.

It’s all about taking the time to identify who is engaging with your business and at which touchpoint – then communicating effectively.

  • Determine each user’s tech knowledge

Preparing appropriate content for your online audience is one thing, providing live verbal support is another. Customers calling your help desk might not all have the same tech knowledge. You could be talking to a novice, a power user, a non-technical team manager, a specialist, etc.

So, for live interactions, always make sure to understand each customer’s existing tech knowledge. You can then adjust your language accordingly to best serve their current knowledge.

Jargon is going to be a useful conversational shorthand when supporting experts; an obstacle for others.

  • Provide context

Last, you should still provide context for jargon even when it’s used appropriately. That doesn’t mean explaining every term you use, or spelling out every acronym, every time.

Rather, providing context is about clarity. New industry jargon rolls out almost by the day. You can’t assume that even your target audience will understand every single term.

So, it’s a good idea to include a little context when introducing jargon. That might be including a glossary on your website, adding tooltips to your program, or simply explaining an acronym the first time you use it in a sentence.

Rethinking jargon

Jargon comes with connotations of confusion and verbosity. It’s generally regarded as something to avoid; something off-putting to an audience.

And this outlook is mistaken. Yes, jargon can be misused. But when used correctly and in the right context, jargon is a communication necessity.

So, don’t be afraid to use the terminology that’s relevant to your niche. Rather than a barrier, jargon commonly serves as the quickest, surest way to convey meaning.

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