Why and how to avoid jargon

A guest post by Stephanie Buck of Until the Lions.

jargon-300x264“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.

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Stephanie BuckAbout the author

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.

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3 Comments

  1. I think there are four issues here.

    The first is democratic. In a democratic system, professionals and politicians have to be able to explain what they are doing to the public. Perhaps not to 9th graders, but probably to anybody with a 12th grade education. And this is possible. I can cite many professionals and scholars at the top of their field who do it.

    The second is intellectual: jargon is a useful shorthand, but there is a real risk that users of jargon end up not even knowing what they are talking about. In my project review role, there are often people cannot explain their terms under question. if you can’t explain a term, how can you back up your claim to understand it? For instance, you hear the word “sustainable” all the time, but there are studies that show this is not being used in any consistent or commonly agreed way. Pretty sad. Pretty disastrous.

    Third is ethical. Go to a surgeon these days and they will explain to you in plain English, with diagrams if necessary, what your problem is, what the options are, what they plan to do, and the risks. Why? Because it’s no longer acceptable to tell clients to lie back and think of England. “Informed consent” is the legal term.

    And finally, reputational, because as long as development planners and implementers are unable to explain themselves and their craft in public, and to the public, their status as trusted advisers will be at risk.

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