The Case for Jargon: When to Avoid it and How to Use it Effectively
Overuse of these verbs in the startup world has practically wrung them free of meaning.
When you talk about your business, you want your listeners – the people who might buy from you, invest in you, work with you – to care. You also want them to understand what you’re saying.
But employing the clichés of startup jargon often does the opposite (and makes an easy target for parody).
Whether you’re fundraising, giving a media interview, writing for your blog, or explaining your job to your grandparents, you need to be able to describe what your company does in a way that resonates with your audience. Sometimes jargon will do the job, but much of the time it won’t.
Here’s how to avoid jargon when communicating your message – plus a look at when jargon can come in handy.
Speak in Plain English to Communicate Clearly & Win Trust Outside Your Niche
Jargon is kind of like a charger plug. You never have to worry about finding the right outlet for it in the US. But if you travel to another country, you’ll need an adapter.
Seasoned travelers know to always bring a universal travel adapter when they go abroad. Likewise, startups must know how to communicate when they exit the walls of their company or industry. Sounding like a human ensures you can get through to anyone.
Using plain English also makes you more trustworthy. This is backed by social psychology. In a study by New York University, participants were read two sentences with the same factual content: one written with jargon, one in plain English.
They overwhelmingly preferred the concise and concrete statements, which they also rated as more accurate than the ones with jargon.
It’s not hard to understand why. Fancy words conceal meaning. Use too many, and people might think you’re bluffing at best, hiding at worst. Sometimes, jargon can even be a linguistic crutch for a lack of high-level understanding.
Fancy words, like a fancy hat, can conceal more than they reveal.
Consider all the people you want to communicate with who don’t speak your industry’s lingo: reporters, investors, customers who are new to the space. If you rely too heavily on industry jargon, they might get confused and miss your point.
Or, if you use a lot of trite and hyperbolic words and phrases like “world-class,” they might roll their eyes.
George Orwell’s fifth rule of writing is a great guideline for talking about your startup: “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
Describing complex issues in simple prose is hard, of course, especially for highly technical, B2B companies. But it’s essential if you want people outside your business to understand what you do.
Use a Metaphor or Trope to Describe What You Do (But Avoid Clichés)
Let’s say you need to describe your startup to a reporter or a potential investor.
If you’re stuck on how to do that without using niche language, try comparing it to something familiar by using a trope or metaphor. Comparison helps people understand what you do without relying on industry-specific terminology.
Here’s an example. Say you’re trying to explain what content marketing is to a fifth-grader. In a recent blog post, Propllr content director Brenna Lemieux does just that. She describes content marketing philosophy as akin to the smell of baking cakes wafting from the neighborhood bakery:
“Just like content, the smell is free to everyone. To those who happen to enjoy it, it also does a great job of creating warm feelings toward the company creating it. And in some cases, the smell is enough to lure people in to buy something.”
Pretty straightforward. Now, imagine reading the following sentence at age 10:
“Content marketing is a business strategy to attract top-of-funnel prospects, build brand affinity, and convert marketing qualified leads.”
Huh? The meaning is the same, but it’ll be lost on anyone who isn’t familiar with the industry and doesn’t understand what a number of those words mean.
Tropes are another helpful way to simplify your message, especially when you’re talking to the media. They’re the bread and butter of startup press coverage.
The caveat here: avoid comparisons you hear over and over (“The Uber of X,” “X is the new Y,” “Taking X to the next level,” etc.). Our brains are actually less likely to engage with and remember a clichéd figure of speech. That’s because we don’t need to do any cognitive work to process its meaning.
Know the Time and Place for Jargon
Jargon does have several worthwhile functions in PR and marketing. Sometimes you can use it as shorthand when you’re addressing other members of your niche.
Here are four instances where jargon can serve a strategic purpose:
1: SEO. Search engine optimization (SEO) is a process that makes your business more visible in online search, in part by using the same words and phrases your potential customers do to describe the issues you address.
Sometimes, an audience might in fact use jargon words in search, in which case it makes sense for your website to include those words. This will more likely be the case in the B2B ecosystem.
2: Education. Is your customer persona unfamiliar with the product or service you provide? You may need to use jargon for context.
Take small business insurance, for example. It’s riddled with acronyms and foreign phrases to anyone who’s starting a business for the first time – BOP, loss runs, EPLI.
Say your startup’s mission is to simplify small business insurance. You start a blog to educate your target audience about the ins and outs of getting a policy.
Your position in educational content, then, is to define and demystify the words your customers will come across in the process of buying. Maybe you create a glossary of those terms, optimized to attract both people who search for a jargony key phrase like “BOP quotes” and people who find your site through a search like “how do I get insurance for my business.”
3: Recruitment. Each arm of a business – from product managers to engineers to sales execs – speaks its own language. And that language is somewhat standardized from company to company because professionals move around so much.
If you’re hiring, using jargon in job listings and supporting marketing and PR content can help job seekers find your opening and help you identify candidates who are fluent in the industry and role. A software engineer should probably be familiar with developer lingo, for example.
It is possible, however, to go overboard with business-speak jargon, as the video below illustrates.
4: Addressing people in your industry. Prospective partners, board members, and competitors all probably use the same jargon as you do.
If your audience is in the industry, using professional terminology can be necessary to communicate with fellow insiders and establish your expertise. In a trade publication, for example, jargon might be the most efficient way to situate yourself within your industry.
Break Up Technical Language with Visuals
Sometimes it’s hard to describe something really technical without using jargon. In those cases, images can fill in the meaning gaps.
Maybe you have to write for a blended audience – both technical pros and consumers, say, or both experienced and new users. In these instances, visuals can help you illustrate what necessary jargon means.
Jargon + visuals = understanding
A labeled diagram in a blog post about your startup’s 3D technology, for instance, can help you explain terms your users will need to be familiar with, like gITF and CAD files.
Simple Words Are Powerful Words
According to my dictionary, the word “jargon” probably comes from the Old French word jargoun, which means “chatter of the birds,” used to describe speech that the listener did not understand.
If you know you’re among – or want to find – other people like you, jargon can be a useful signal.
If you’re not, leave the chirping to the birds. Tell your startup’s story with simple words.
Need some help? Finding the right words is our specialty.