October 20, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Why Clear Language is Important

Why Clear Language is Important

Synergies.
Empowerment.
Paradigm.
These words are jargon – used by people who often have no idea what they mean, but who want to sound smart in front of others. Their widespread over-use leads to them being widely ridiculed. I see the same thing happening with social media terms. We throw them around as if everyone knows what they mean, and in doing so we alienate people who don’t. It’s time for us to cut the jargon out of our writing and nerd it down a little. See? I’ve fallen into the trap already. “Social media.” What percentage of people outside the Internet bubble do you think knows what “social media” means?
Ok, I’m going to assume you do know. I mean, you’re reading this article, right?
Let’s be honest, the vast majority of people out there have no idea what “social bookmarking,” “RSS” or “microblogging” mean. The Internet-savvy crowd, while growing, still isn’t that big.
Low barriers to entry are a big selling point of social media. There’s no specialized equipment to buy, little expensive software and the tools are usually easy to use. So why are we throwing up a giant barrier to entry by constantly using jargon and complicating things when we write?
Of course, this all depends on who you’re writing for. If you’re writing for newcomers to social media then this is a no-brainer- you need to explain everything. On the other hand, if your site is targeted at social media experts then perhaps some technical terms may be appropriate. Still, wouldn’t you like more people to read what you’re writing?
Social media is all about people. Critically, it needs people to make it work. There’s a big network effect where each additional user adds value to the other members of the network. It’s in our interest to encourage other people to use social media tools.
What if I were to tell you that you don’t need to dumb down your writing to simplify it? That’s right – you can still write about advanced topics without using confusing words. It’s just a matter of finding words that people can relate to instead of taking the easy route and using jargon. You’re not dumbing-down, you’re opening-up.
Why is clear writing important? A 2003 U.S. government [survey](http://nces.ed.gov/NAAL/PDF/2006470.PDF), a third of America’s adults had only basic or below basic literacy skills. That rose to over half when it came to using numbers. It’s similar in Canada – according to a 2003 Canadian government [survey](http://www.statcan.ca/Daily/English/050511/d050511b.htm), four in ten Canadians suffered from low-level literacy skills. We have to remember that we’re not just writing for ourselves.
This is even more important for public servants like me. We have to communicate with all of the government’s citizens, not just those fortunate enough to have a university education.
I wrote about this on my site recently, and asked readers what terms they wanted to eliminate. I’ve mellowed a bit on some of the suggestions I came up with originally, but I received some great suggestions, including:
– “[Link baiting](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-223)” – why not write about what it is, i.e. content that others will want to link to
– “[Vlog](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-226)” how about video blog?
– Anything with “[2.0](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-227)” in it
– “[Microblogging](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-232)”
– “[Conversation](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-234)” – an increasingly overused word
– “[The X space](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-242)” (replace X with whatever you like)
– “[Users](http://davefleet.com/2008/02/im-done-with-social-media/#comment-268)” – as the commenter said, why use a word that suggests you’re pimping them drugs?
Here are a few of my pet peeves:
– “RSS” – really simple? I think not. Try throwing this into a conversation with your Grandparents and see if they understand.
– “URL” – why not just “web address?” What’s with the acronyms?
– “Unconference” – writing news releases for PodCamp Toronto recently, I had to throw a line into almost every release to explain what an unconference was. Is the distinction important? Sure. Is the name important? No.
Do you have words or phrases that bug you? Words that you don’t understand, or that you just wish people would stop using?
*[Dave Fleet](http://davefleet.com) is a communications professional with a passion for social media, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Dave has worked in marketing and communications for major corporations including Hitachi Europe and Lloyds TSB but nowadays works in the public sector, for Ontario’s provincial government.*

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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8 Comments

  1. sallie@author-izer.com'
    Sallie Goetsch (rhymes with "sketch")

    Hear, hear! Part of my job in working with clients is translating Geek into English, but jargon becomes invisible to its users.
    I just did a short exercise explaining tagging to a group of senior consultants, inspired by Jeff Pulver’s breakfasts, and the light began to dawn when people started slapping sticky notes on each other.
    As for RSS, I’ve started to say “feed,” which is slightly less confusing. I’m still trying to think of a really good metaphor.

  2. chamikak@gmail.com'
    Chamika

    Great topic – plain language should always be used. People’s eyes glaze over when you use terms like URL or RSS.
    Most people just want to know that when they click their mouse on a link or enter a search word into Google, a website and information appears. Preferably, clear, concise information that they were looking for.
    I’ve tried pitching RSS as a website subscriptions .
    I’ve found that the best way to bridge the gap of understanding is to demonstrate some of these tools in person – the aha moments are priceless.

  3. shel@holtz.com'
    Shel Holtz

    While I, too, despise meaningless jargon (“I’m shifting my core competencies in my quest to achieve world-class status through implementation of best practices”), I’m gonna take the contrarian view here.
    Sometimes labels are helpful. I’ve heard the argument against social media, but do we just call it all “media?” Why not call all books “books” and not classify them as fiction, current affairs, biography, history, etc.?
    The issue here is one of time. There hasn’t been enough time to see how many of these terms find their way into common usage. Once upon a time, “ham radio” was a geeky term; everybody knows it today. What about “FM” (frequency modulation, I believe)? The fact that “microblogging” hasn’t hit the mainstream yet doesn’t concern me; it’s barely a year old. Either it will merge into societal consciousness or it won’t. But, as I say, so many terms we take for granted today started out as terms applied only by the early adopters or insiders.
    That said, I’m delighted that Microsoft dropped RSS from its RSS functionality in IE7 and just calls them web feeds. RSS just SOUNDS geeky.

  4. jzingsheim@customscoop.com'
    Jen Zingsheim

    Shel, that example of meaningless jargon made me laugh!
    My only trouble with RSS is that it reminds me of “ROUS’s” – Rodents Of Unusual Size.
    “The Princess Bride” is never far from my thoughts when I’m explaining RSS… 😉

  5. shel@holtz.com'
    Shel Holtz

    Jen, I can’t remember if I was in junior high or high school when I first read “The Princess Bride.” William Goldman was my favorite writer growing up, though, and I loved that book. (“Boys and Girls Together” knocked me out, though.)

  6. davef@davefleet.com'
    Dave Fleet

    Wow, I’m late re-joining this conversation!
    Shel – you make a good point about the amount of time these terms have been around.
    First up, I agree with what you and Neville said on this Monday’s FIR – that it does depend on the audience. If you’re writing for people who already know about this stuff, that’s one thing and you probably have some leeway with the terms. If you want a wider audience, however, that’s another.
    If you’re in the second group then we should at least explain what we mean by them when we write until these terms ARE commonly used. I’d much prefer to see “blah blah blah, which we call X” and then references to X throughout, than just launching in and assuming people know what X means.

  7. paul@e-core.co.uk'
    Paul Williams

    I am a trainee teacher and face barriers with my use of language with students all the time.
    How do you explain these complex ideas in a way that an 11 year old will understand?
    Thats my quest!

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