Keeping the Jargon Out of Public Communication

Every field has its specialized vocabulary, and public administration is no exception. There is value to this shorthand, commonly referred to as jargon. We can communicate more efficiently and readily identify kindred spirits.

The disadvantages seep in when we use professional jargon for public consumption. When specialized language is used in articles or speeches written for a broad readership (or listenership), it can lead to confusion or annoyance.

Generally, politicians are quite good at not lapsing into bureaucratese or geek speak (two great examples of jargon). They know voters might be turned off and opponents would love to quote anything that makes an incumbent seem out of touch with constituents.

For managers and academics, jargon is more likely to creep into conversation. When public administrators write for professional journals, it’s expected. Phrases such as entrepreneurial management paradigm seem to roll off the tongue more readily than explaining that there is a belief that private sector techniques would improve public management.

However, using the phrase at a county commissioner meeting could get the speaker a one-way ticket to a single term commissioner’s seat.

Jargon is not limited to public administration or even the public sector. For example, how much would you pay to never be told to “think outside the box” or “push the envelope”?

On the other hand, the term “helicopter parents” succinctly conveys the parents who hover over a child’s every activity, generally insisting that their cherub can do no wrong. And it sounds nicer to refer to someone as a “helicopter parent” rather than as an over-involved interferer.

“Sandwich generation” is useful shorthand for mid-lifers dealing with young children and aging parents.

Occasionally language choices appear to be employed because users think it makes them look more knowledgeable. For example, you can “say” something or “articulate” it, and the message should be the same.

An action can “make a difference” or be “impactful.” The latter is such a new word that spell check does not recognize it, so there may be hope that it can leave the lexicon (otherwise known as the dictionary).

The neat thing about English is that we are more open than other languages to introduce new words, and quick to move a catchy phrase to general use or…jargon. Spyware does not refer to espionage clothing, and you have to think for a second or you will mix up a couch potato with its more recent cousin, the mouse potato. Each of these phrases conveys something specific in clear shorthand form.

The ultimate jargon has become texting abbreviations. I can remember what email I was reading and who sent it when I finally figured out that btw was not an abbreviation for between. Having said that, IMHO, we r done here. CU FTF at the ASPA mtg!

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Profile Photo Samuel Lovett

Acronyms also are a huge part of government-speak — for agency names, job titles, forms (have you finished your TPS reports yet?). Like the example you gave of technical jargon, we forget that most people outside of government have no idea what these strings of letters mean.

It took me forever to figure out what a “PIO” was when I started in government. Now I can’t call “public information officers” anything but “PIOs”, even when speaking with people who most likely don’t know what I’m talking about — I should try to be more careful when I use the industry shorthand, but that’s how habits work.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

The #1 misconception of subject matter experts is as you point out that using jargon makes them look smarter. But they say it in a different way – that jargon helps to promote accuracy. It’s nearly impossible when dealing with a SME to argue that you should “dumb it down.” That’s why the Plain Writing Act is so important – although I don’t think people take it seriously enough.

Profile Photo Dave Hebert

Jargon is, as you state, useful to the groups for whom it has meaning. But there are limits — scientists, for example, are far more likely to read scientists’ work if it’s had plain language principles applied to it.

Regardless of your audience, your written/spoken work shouldn’t be a research project for said audience to read, in which they have to constantly refer back to definitions and unpack acronyms (unless your intention was to make it such a project). The research was your job as the writer; the reader’s job is to decide what to do with what you’ve given them. Help that decision be an easier one to make.

Profile Photo Dannielle Blumenthal

I once wanted to turn a press release into a blog post but the SME misunderstood the audience. Said if other scientists found out he would be laughed out of town. Wanted us to use press release verbatim. Hugely important pest interception not covered. Talk about brand – this is why people don’t know the good work we do. The protective impulse had opposite effect.

Profile Photo Dave Hebert

That’s the battle we must continue to wage, Danielle — I usually try to respond to those situations with a more diplomatic version of “If I did what you are asking me to do, I wouldn’t be doing my job, and I would be doing you, as my client, a disservice.” Sometimes, that exact sentiment is required, sans diplomacy, but it should be applied judiciously:-)

Profile Photo Dennis Stransky

I try to follow George Orwell’s rules for writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

This also applies to acronyms. My favorite is SNAFU. Few people I ask know what this means but the phrase includes a word that should not be used in polite company let alone in formal writing.

Profile Photo Allison Primack

When asked which jargon words should be kept out of government communications, GovLoop Facebook users said the following:

Kevin Schafer value stream mapping 🙂

Joe Brodnicki utlization, problematic, and vet for starters. I’d also go for teamwork, committee, and meaningful.

Denice Warren Ross Anything in the passive voice!

Michael Hardy ‎”stand up” meaning to get an organization up and running.

Michael Hardy ‎”The warfighter.” There’s more than one of them.

Sue Averay ‎’issues’, ‘moving forward and ‘national interest’ spring to mind today – there’ll be a different set tomorrow!

Lorrie Andrew-Spear If one more person says “it is what it is” I’m gonna scream!

Neelie M Neirbo ‎”the low hanging fruit”. Ack!

Neelie M Neirbo ‎”employees are our greatest asset”

Neelie M Neirbo ‎”business process”, “the cloud”

Neelie M Neirbo ‎”non essential employee”, “meets expectations”