4 ways to find—and replace—jargon in your writing

How to zap the buzzwords that appear in press releases, blogs, and yes, even emails from executives.

Sometimes, recognizing jargon is hard.

We’ve heard the say-nothing shortcuts so often that our ears and eyes almost get accustomed to them. Well, the bad news is this: Fixing gunky corporate-speak is even harder than spotting it.

It requires swapping the buzzwords for something that actually means something—something specific that matters to your customers, co-workers, or boss. It means substituting the cliché for the crisp and coherent.

Don’t worry. These tips will make it much easier. Keep them handy. When you need a jolt out of jargon-land, pull them out and follow the four steps toward a better, clear, sharper way to say what you really mean.

Step one: Sleuth

Most jargon and buzzwords can be grouped into four categories:

• Nouns as verbs: ideate, incentivize, leverage, etc.

• Verbs as nouns: actionable, takeaway, deliverable, etc.

• Work that’s not done in an office: drill down, circle back, loop me in, etc.

• Nonsense: boil the ocean, drink from a fire hose, build the plane while flying it, etc.

Tip: Hunting the buzzwords by category should help you spot them.

Step two: Assign

The examples of corporate-speak, unfortunately, are nearly limitless. However, in most cases, jargon is a sloppy stand-in for a thing or an action.

Don’t let correct usage throw you. Remember, in jargon-land, nouns can pretend to be verbs, and vice versa. The results sound weird and awful, but such inversions happen. Let’s pause and “ideate” that point. The role of “ideate” in that sentence is an action. Of course, in the real world, idea is a noun. But in this case, it’s being twisted into a bad impersonation of a verb.

Tip: When assigning a role to the jargon you want to zap, ask yourself whether it’s standing in for a thing or an action.

• “Before going into that meeting, let’s be clear about the ask.”
“The ask” is being used as a thing.

• “The next slide describes the main takeaway from this session.”
“The takeaway” is being used as a thing.

• “We’ll need to get those materials ready in time to on-board the new director of sales.”
“To on-board” is being used an action.

• “What is the project team’s first deliverable?”
“Deliverable” is being used as a thing.

Buzzwords will sometimes describe things, too. Examples include “blue-sky thinking,” “out of the box idea,” or “mission-critical work.” Descriptions of things, for the purpose of this post, will be assigned, or grouped with, things.

Step three: Scan

Pretend you need to replace the cringe-worthy, tired expression: “low-hanging fruit,” which you spotted in a memo you were writing. That jargon is standing in for a thing. Scan the word list of things, shaded light green. You might select “simple job.”

Step four: Substitute

Now, take the words you picked when you scanned and substitute them for the jargon you want to banish. Add some detail, if needed. For example, when you substitute the dreaded fruit for “simple job,” you could also briefly describe what the job is or explain why it’s simple.

In some cases, you might be substituting more words than you are replacing. This is especially true if you’re zapping jargon from the category “Nouns as Verbs.”

For example:

• To get rid of “incentivize” you might substitute: “give rewards to staff for meeting goals”

• To get rid of “calendarize” you could substitute: “write this confirmed date in your calendar”

Using more words is fine when they replace jargon, are simple and clear, and say what you mean. The point is to end up with something better than you had before.

Why four steps?

I broke this process into steps so it might make more sense. At first, it may still seem complicated, but the more you practice, the easier it will get. The process should start to become almost automatic as you write. Eventually, you won’t need to remind yourself of the steps, or perhaps, even look at the word lists.

Good luck. And let me know how this works for you.

Becky Gaylord worked as a reporter for more than 15 years in Washington, D.C., Cleveland, and Sydney, before she launched the consulting practice, Gaylord LLC. You can read Becky’s blog Framing What Works, where a version of this story first appeared.

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