Experienced PR and marketing pros recognize the malaise that jargon engenders.
With the year’s first quarter winding down, many marketing communications departments have crafted the product messaging that goes with the year’s marketing and communications plans. I was involved in reviewing marketing and PR content for some clients and once again, I’m stupefied and struck dumb at how articulate, smart communications professionals continue to churn out corporate writing with enough jargon to fill a jelly bean jar.
“Leverage.” “Scalable.” “Synergy.” “Turnkey.” “Bleeding edge.” Every single one of the corporate clients I’ve worked with has one of these terms in their materials, be it in a brochure, press release, website copy or article.
Let’s revisit the definition of jargon. According to Dictionary.com, it is defined a few ways. Jargon is “the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group.” However, it is also “language that is characterized by uncommon or pretentious vocabulary, convoluted syntax and is often vague in meaning.”
I’m sure my esteemed colleagues agree that too much jargon is bad for the soul, so why do we use it? A number of reasons came up when I did a quick, and by no means scientific, poll of industry contacts, friends and colleagues.
1. The bosses love it.
Anyone who has held an in-house communications position or worked at an agency would empathize with the views of two professionals I spoke with. A corporate communications manager at an multinational corporation (who smartly requested not to be named) moaned: “The bosses want it. Seriously, [a manager] insisted that I rewrite his quote to include ‘core competencies’ and ‘mission critical.’ I know it’s lame, but what can you do if your superiors think it’s good writing?”
Similarly, a consultant at an agency griped: “My clients think I don’t understand their business if I don’t sprinkle in a few choice bits of jargon in their press release.”
2. It’s an easy fallback.
The MOU signifies a win-win model for both partners, as it will leverage the key strengths and synergies of both parties, thus pushing the technology envelope in this new paradigm of open-source collaboration.
Hands up: who has seen or written such coma-inducing twaddle? Having worked in the technology sector for close to two decades, I have seen enough of this drivel to guess at two things. One, the poor consultant writing this has no clue as to the actual technical specifics of the agreement, and is thus forced to cobble something together under a tight deadline. Another possibility is that the legal department, ever erring on the side of caution or potential lawsuits, has taken every significant and potentially litigious term out of the writing, leaving behind a sentence that essentially says nothing at all.
3. It’s an industry norm.
At the same time, it’s impractical to try to be jargon-free, especially in specialized industries such as technology, oil and gas, law or the medical profession. A freelance writer was very practical about the jargon conundrum: “Let’s face it. It’s just one of those things that will always be around. In the tech industry, almost every other word is jargon. ‘Scalable’ or ‘future-proofing’ may be jargon to the man on the street, but everyone in the industry will immediately know what you’re talking about.”
Therein lies the conundrum. Jargon may be annoying and soul-destroying, but it continues to be used pervasively.
Be brave and find a balance
Seemingly everyone uses jargon, so why strike out beyond the status quo? However easy and convenient it may be, overuse of jargon is a cop out. It holds communicators back from telling corporate stories effectively.
Corporate stories need to stand out from the barrage of content on the Web. One needs to be brave to go beyond the norm to be noticed. Hiding behind jargon will only serve to keep you safe, but also invisible.
Keeping jargon to a minimum takes discipline. By all means, keep the odd, hackneyed term in there to please the bosses, but try telling your corporate story in as fresh a way as possible. It will take time and effort to find new ways to convey messages, but when something is different and original, it will stand out and be remembered among the hundreds of releases and articles organizations churn out each day.
As Nike so simply puts it: just do it. Try getting out of your comfort zone to pipe down the jargon. It may just pave your way to more effective communications.
Maureen Tseng is diirector of client services at The Hoffman Agency Singapore.