CultureInspiration

How To Get Rid of Jargon, A Public Interest Communicator’s Worst Nightmare

September 8, 2014   |   Bruce Trachtenberg

He probably wouldn’t like me to call it a crusade, but it’s hard to think of the fight Tony Proscio has been waging for almost 15 years against the use of jargon in discussions about public policy matters as anything less than that.

For it to be a successful crusade, though, his writings on the subject should be required reading for every public interest communicator. For those unfamiliar with his works, the best place to start is with the first of his three book-length essays on the subject: “in other words.”

In that volume, Proscio minces no words. He writes that when people on the forefront of social policy work pepper their writing and speaking with jargon, the real danger is not that audiences will get annoyed, but “the repetitive, habitual use of insider lingo undermines the inherently public nature of the social issues under discussion.”

Fast forward to today and we find that Proscio is still fighting against “bad words for good.” He’s also continuing to dispense advice to help social change communicators ward off their worst nightmare: writing and speaking that dulls, stupifies and kills useful public discourse. He recently shared his thoughts about jargon’s continuing pernicious effects in a podcast interview with the Communications Network.

As he told interviewer Mac Prichard, the reason to avoid jargon–advice every public interest communicator should take to heart–is that the “whole point of inspiring people to do things is that you reach them at a level that’s both emotional and intellectual. The emotions are stirred by emotional speech and the intellect is stirred by originality. Neither of those things is going to come from a lot of cliché, jargon, abstractions, and technicalities.”

The entire interview is worth a listen, especially for the tips Proscio shares about how to rid your own writing and speaking of jargon. Here’s a quick sample:

  • “Summon up an image of your audience while you’re writing. Not even the whole audience, just someone in it who is likely to need persuading or need explaining.”
  • “Make a list for yourself of the terms that are likely to sound technical or abstract, that are likely to be overused but maybe are not going to be well understood that are too vague, then it will be very easy for you to recognize when you are using those words in whatever you write.”
  • “Make an outline. Not for the purpose of absolutely governing what your paper is ultimately going to say or what your speech is going to contain, more for the purpose of writing down short phrases, short clear crisp original phrases that describe the points you want to make.”
  • “Read it out loud.”

Finally, if you are not sure whether a word is jargon, check out this handy list from our friends at the Communications Network.

Bruce Trachtenberg
Bruce Trachtenberg is executive producer and editor for The Atlantic Philanthropies. He previously served as executive editor for frank and before that as executive director of the Communications Network.