[This blog was first published in TFN on 21/8/18 - see http://bit.ly/2wejuqR)
A staple of the internet diet of “Top Ten List of…” reportage regularly includes examples of the worst uses of jargon. This year’s Davos meeting prompted the BBC to offer a translation service for the astonishingly creative use of the English language employed by the great and the good attending the Word Economic Forum (my personal favourite is their meaning for the phrase “resilience imperative” – the BBC states “We haven’t a clue” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-42791874).
Yet financiers and politicians are not the only ones who often speak in a coded language. Jargon is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “Special words or expressions used by a profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.” Taking a helicopter view of the charity sector, we can drill down and admit that we are no strangers to picking the low hanging fruit of jargonese in order to ensure our ducks are firmly in a row.
When looking at communications across the sector, it’s easy to find examples of times when “in” words are regularly used by those in the know, with the potential for excluding those who are not. For example, it wouldn’t be wrong for folk to think that ACE cards are good things to hold on to, not realising that the speaker is referring to Adverse Childhood Experiences. People may be expecting a play when turning up to a co-produced event and stopwatches may be considered an essential piece of equipment for checking if someone has met their PB target.
It should be no surprise then that there are a considerable number of “jargon buster” lists out there, specifically targeted at charity speak. (See for example, SCVO’s list of governance jargon - https://scvo.org.uk/running-your-organisation/governance/jargon-buster; the TPAS list of social housing jargon - https://www.orbit.org.uk/media/797298/tpas-jargon-buster.pdf; a Care and Support jargon buster from https://www.thinklocalactpersonal.org.uk/Browse/Informationandadvice/CareandSupportJargonBuster/ and CVS Falkirk’s “big list” of third sector jargon - https://www.cvsfalkirk.org.uk/about-us/jargon-buster/) .
Why not have a look at some of them to see if there are phrases and acronyms there that you use when talking about your work? It may jolt you to see words you use on a daily basis described as jargon that needs translation. Contrary to what some may say, its not always wrong to use jargon as long as it is recognised as such and used in the right way. Used correctly, it can be an effective and time-efficient way to describe an aspect of your work that aids communication rather than distract from it.
But what is the “right way” to use jargon? Here are a few tips:
· Learn to identify jargon in the first place. That may be through browsing the jargon busters; discussions with those you work with; or even just asking friends whether they understand what the terms mean.
· Don’t use jargon you don’t understand. You will not be the first person to use a word to “fit in” without really knowing what it means but be too embarrassed to ask or even google. If you don’t understand what you are saying, then the chances are your audience will either not understand you or (perhaps worse) realise that you don’t understand the issue either.
· Recognise if there are different “interpretations” of jargon. If there is a disputed meaning for the phrase, then tell people “this is what I mean by…”. It will only assist the clarity of your message.
· Call out others for their use of constant jargon. Instead of a swear box, why not set up an office jargon box to see how you can all operate without using some hackneyed phrases? You might even raise some funds along the way.
· Remember that the most important question you must ask before you use any word is “how do my audience talk about this issue?”. Your choice of language depends not on what you understand but on how your audience relates to your subject – communication only works if it is a truly two-way experience. Whether you are speaking to a room full of people with lived experiences of an issue, of academic experts, of funders or of the general public, consider before you speak what their communication context is. Be respectful of their experience and way of talking about a matter and they will be respectful of and engage with the message you are sharing with them.
Goethe is attributed with the quotation “everyone hears only what he understands”. When we talk about a matter that we care about, we should ensure that people hear and understand what we say. Jargon can be a great tool when we are trying to succinctly express our views – just don’t let it become the way in which your message gets lost in translation.