A guest post by Stephanie Buck of Until the Lions.
“The utilization of the material learned in the training was bolstered by the local capacity building and gender sensitive expertise of local experts; the synergies brought together by different sectors, the information about the local context leveraged by the leaders, and the cross-cutting themes adopted by the facilitators made for a successful workshop for the beneficiaries that will facilitate knowledge sharing and bottom up development.”
Huh? Say again?
This kind of writing induces headaches and a need for excessive amounts of coffee. I’ve read through too many reports written just like the paragraph above, using jargon, zombie nouns, buzzwords, passive voice, and long, complex sentences. All these things make it difficult for the reader to understand. This is especially true if s/he doesn’t know development speak (or devspeak).
You know your industry has a problem when The Guardian dedicates an entire column to decoding development jargon. So let me focus on the use of jargon, and leave the other poor writing criticisms and word crimes for another time.
Why we should avoid jargon
1) There is often a better way to say things.
How would you explain these issues to a kid? Or to a grandparent who has been around far longer than international development existed as a discipline? Simplicity is a good thing; it increases clarity and readability. Content that is easier to read is more likely to help readers understand, engage with, and relate to the story you’re trying to tell.
2) Some devspeak words carry connotations that only hurt people.
For example, the term “beneficiaries” suggests a group of people waiting for handouts because they can’t help themselves. Yet the people we partner with are not helpless, but rather resilient. One journalist has even pointed out how jargon hurts the poor.
3) Buzzwords lose meaning.
A humorous post on WhyDev discusses nine development phrases the authors hate, including “in the field,” and “livelihoods.” The point is that these words become buzzwords without meaning, or even distort the true meanings of these words. That is one of the many dangers of using jargon. William Easterly even created an AidSpeak Dictionary that makes some good (albeit cringeworthy) points.
4) Using jargon doesn’t make us sound smarter.
One of my brilliant classmates and friends once said the following: if someone can’t explain technical terms in plain speech, then s/he doesn’t really understand the subject. In fact, sometimes jargon can become a way to talk about a subject without saying anything substantive. I’ve read countless documents where words like “leverage,” “capacity building,” and more, are thrown around without thought to what people actually mean by these terms. And sometimes it turns out people mean very different things, even when we think we speak the same language.
How to avoid jargon
- Try to think of a different word. If you can’t come up with one, try harder. If you still can’t think of one – Google it.
- Think about your audience and what you’re really trying to communicate. Where are these people coming from? What are they interested in? Keeping these things in mind, how can you communicate your message clearly, simply, and effectively?
- Ask yourself if a fifth grader would understand it. That doesn’t mean you should weed out complexity, but think about simplifying language. Simple doesn’t mean stupid.
- Have someone who is not familiar with devspeak read over your work and give you feedback. Eventually you’ll start to learn which words make no sense, and which ones are OK.
- The Hemingway App isn’t targeted to discover jargon, but it will help you analyze your writing in a new way that can improve clarity.
In sum, jargon is unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst. Sometimes we have to write donor reports that respond directly to the devspeak in the monitoring and evaluation plan. In those cases, jargon can be hard to avoid…but try.
For the sake of your readers, even those fluent in devspeak, there’s a better way to tell the story.
Stephanie Buck is the creator and lead writer of Until the Lions, a blog dedicated to improving the way we tell stories for and about international development. She has served with development organizations in a variety of capacities in Ecuador, Peru, and Washington, DC. She earned a Master’s degree in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics in 2012. Her degrees, work and volunteer experience, and passion for writing have inspired her to create a platform to discuss why communications and storytelling matter, and how we can do these things better. She hopes you’ll join the conversation.