November, 2004
Feature
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



Start Making Sense

ANN WYLIE

How to remove gobbledygook, buzzwords, businesses, techno-babble, jargon and other gibberish from your copy

“We don’t call them tattoos anymore,” said Richard Teerlink, chairman of Harley-Davidson, as the screen behind him showed a bicep emblazoned with what he called a “dermatological graphic” of the Milwaukee motorcycle maker’s familiar symbol.

Of course you don’t, Mr. Teerlink.

Just like we don’t call it “a company,” “talking,” “hiring consultants” or “coming up with ideas” anymore. Now they’re “the enterprise,” “interfacing,” “utilizing change agents” and “ideation.”

Jargon. Buzzwords. Acronyms. They’re things that make your reader go “huh?” And we need to get them out of our copy.

“Bad terminology is the enemy of good thinking,” writes Warren Buffett, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway Inc., in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Plain English Handbook. “When companies or investment professionals use terms such as ‘EBITDA’ and ‘pro forma,’ they want you to unthinkingly accept concepts that are dangerously flawed.”

That’s why the best communicators are translators. They translate the language of our organizations into the language of our readers.

Avoid buzzword backlash

Translating jargon has never been more important. People are livid about the amount of jargon and buzzwords writers use these days.

You’ve seen the Dilbert cartoons where the staff plays Buzzword Bingo against the pointy-haired boss.

You’ve visited Buzzkiller (www.buzzkiller.net/buzzsaw.html), the Website that editors at Forbes, Fortune and other major business publications created to post and poke fun of buzzword-packed press releases.

Perhaps you’re also aware of the rants metro daily editors write about releases that are so discombobulating that even beat reporters can’t follow them. (As PRSA’s national writing coach, I sometimes have the dubious honor of responding to calls from those irate reporters.)

If you need more reasons to translate the gibberish in your copy, consider that jargon:

• Makes your copy longer. Good communicators cut through the clutter in their copy.

• Forces the reader to work harder. Isn’t it your job to translate jargon so your reader doesn’t have to?

• Makes it harder for the media to use your PR materials. Some 85 percent of leading Canadian journalists want to receive PR materials that are clear and easy to understand, according to a study by National Public Relations. Those journalists believe that jargon and poorly written releases frequently “get in the way” of their doing their jobs.

• Illustrates that your organization may be in trouble. There may be a link between jargon and poor business performance, according to a study by Deloitte Consulting. In one test, “Bullfighter,” Deloitte’s software program that tests copy for jargon and muddy language, showed that now-bankrupt energy trader Enron’s language got more and more obscure as the company got deeper in trouble.

• Demonstrates your ignorance. “When people don’t understand the material, they tend to go more with the original, often too-technical and undigested information from a primary source,” says Neita F. Geilker, Ph.D., who teaches business writing. “A writer who really understands the information can translate it accurately into lay language.” So you think big words make you look intelligent? Think again.

De-garble your copy

How can you get the jargon out? These three techniques will help you get started:

• Define your audience. If you’re writing to insiders — employees, investors and business-to-business (B2B) reporters, for instance — educate them about your language. Define terms in the text, compile glossaries and otherwise make it easy for readers to learn the language of the organization. If you’re writing to outsiders — customers, prospects and the general-interest media, for example — translate. Try using their language exclusively if they don’t need to learn your terms to, say, buy a software program from your organization.

• Recast definitions. The most common way to define terms on first reference is: “Unfamiliar term, familiar term …” But that’s not the most friendly approach. It says, “Term A — which you, being a nitwit — apparently don’t understand, means Term B.” Instead, try: “Familiar term, unfamiliar term …” This is a little more accessible, suggesting, “Term B, which, by the way, we geeks in accounting call term A …”

• Run the B2B test. Writing a release for the trades? Unsure whether a word is an industry term or an in-house term? That’s when Kelly Parthen, PR manager of Agilent Technologies, runs the B2B test. She searches trade publication Web sites for the term in question. If she can’t find it there there, she figures it’s not an industry word and comes up with a more familiar substitute.

Write to be understood

Next time your fingers hit the keyboard, translate jargon. That will help you avoid Alan Greenspan’s problem. The Federal Reserve chairman once told a group of economists: “I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you’ve probably misunderstood what I’ve said.”

Translate jargon

Want to learn more about how to get the gobbledygook out of your copy? Check out Ann Wylie’s “Writing That Sells” system: www.wyliecomm.com/learning_tools/wts.shtml. You’ll learn how to get the word out and make your writing more accessible to your readers.



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Copyright © 2004 Ann Wylie. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from Ann Wylie and Publications Management 10.04 (www.pubmgmt.com)