Why and how to avoid jargon

Copyright Stephanie E. Buck

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?

I’ve read through many reports written just like the paragraph above. This kind of writing induces headaches and a need for excessive amounts of coffee. It uses zombie nouns, passive voice, and long, complex sentences. It also relies heavily on jargon. 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.

This post will focus on the use of jargon, and leave the other poor writing criticisms and word crimes  for another time.

Why we should avoid jargon

For one, 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.

Second, some devspeak words carry connotations that only hurt the people we’re trying to help. 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: they are resilient.

A humorous post on WhyDev discusses nine development phrases the authors hate. This includes “beneficiaries,” “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. One journalist has even pointed out how jargon hurts the poor.

Finally, 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.

How to avoid jargon

  • Try to think of a different word. If you can’t come up with one, please try harder. There are even some resources that already have some great suggestions. Google searches and a thesaurus can also prove useful.
  • 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.
  • 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. I understand that sometimes we have to write donor reports that respond directly to the devspeak in the monitoring and evaluation plan. In those cases, jargon is hard to avoid. However, in most other cases, there’s a better way to tell the story.

Copyright Stephanie E. Buck
Don’t make an a** of yourself. Stay away from jargon!                                                      (Photo by Stephanie E. Buck)
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8 Comments

  1. Hey! I’ve read a couple of your blog posts and really appreciate them, especially this one.

    I’ve had multiple conversations with friends who don’t believe they use jargon in their conversations about international development, but jargon is so sneaky. In terms of telling a story to an unfamiliar audience, this jargon can really get in the way.

    That being said, familiar audiences (deciding who falls into this category is another discussion entirely) can explore more complex topics more easily when they can compress a lot of meaning into a single word understood by a select group of people. When I use the term “WASH” to people in the water resources development field, the collective imagery painted with this one word saves time, and allows me to move on to specific issues in this area. You nod to this concept in your last comment about using devspeak in donor reports, but I think it actually has a use — as long as real effort is put into understanding the audience.

    Thanks for posting! I’d be interested to see what you think of my point.

    Like

    1. Hi there! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog!

      You have brought up a good point: audience is important. Jargon does exist to make it easier for professionals to talk to each other. Doctors, lawyers, artists, accountants, etc. all use some form of jargon. One of the basic tenets of communications is to know your audience. Using the acronym WASH when you’re working with people who work in water, sanitation, and hygiene makes sense.

      However, I think that too heavy of a reliance on jargon is just bad writing. People start to use buzzwords without really thinking about the implications of these terms in how it shapes perceptions of challenges, and the solutions to those challenges. Sometimes the terms lose their meaning entirely.

      I understand most devspeak because I work in this sector. Yet I find it very frustrating to read any publication that uses a lot of jargon because it sometimes become a way of talking about a subject without actually saying anything helpful or substantive. Not always, of course. But I’ve read countless documents and sat in on conferences and meetings where the terms “leverage,” “capacity building,” “trainings,” 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 though we think we’re speaking the same language.

      If you’re leading a workshop on how to make programs “gender sensitive,” you can’t really avoid that piece of jargon. But that’s where defining terms is helpful. Because there’s a good chance that “gender sensitive” looks different in different contexts.

      Regardless, we should still think about the weight of the words we choose. Especially if what write will go to a more diverse audience. Admittedly, as a writer, I probably spend more time thinking about word choice than most people.

      I hope this helped! So glad to hear your thoughts, and thanks for bringing up a good point about knowing your audience!

      Like

      1. That’s a great point about using what we think are universally understood terms in conversation, but not realizing others conjure up entirely different images. Thanks for the response — I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

        Liked by 1 person

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