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Avoiding Jargon: How Nonprofits Can Do It and Why They Should

The Chronicle of Philanthropy held a live, online discussion on industry jargon and how charities should handle it in their communications.  Professional writer and nonprofit consultant Tony Proscio took questions and gave insightful answers.  Among the more interesting points:

Some people in the nonprofit world insist that their audience is familiar with jargon and expects it.  How do you refute this?
The first rule should always be: Speak to your audience the way they speak to one another. If they really use these terms — and if they are your ONLY audience — then you have every reason to speak as they do. But (a) very few people write to only one audience, and (b) we often assume that other people speak the way we do. Both of these considerations might make one think twice before assuming that jargon is really the right language to use.

Second, it’s not always wise to stick to language that people EXPECT. The unexpected word, the intriguing phrase, the fresh expression are often our best friends. They make people pause and think. The 19th century poet Matthew Arnold once praised Ulysses S. Grant’s writing — note: not some poet, but a general! — because Grant used “shrewd and unexpected turns of expression.” The unexpected word need not be exotic, but it should introduce some variety and imagination into your text — always a good thing.

You can sometimes ask board members if it would be OK to append a little explanation, for the benefit of lay people, to shed some further light on their text. But to be perfectly honest, when someone controls my life and really wants to say something, I decide it’s better to survive than to tell them not to say it, and end up dying on principle.

What can you do when your board writes an official document and it’s filled with jargon?


After a while, it’s sometimes hard to see the jargon we use. What are a few tips for how to “test” for jargon?
The best test I know of is to show a smart, sympathetic, and honest outsider what you’re writing, and ask 3 questions: (1) Are there words or phrases here that you really don’t understand? (2) Are there expressions here that seem tired, worn-out, or dense to you? And most important (3) are there words or phrases in here that are used TOO OFTEN, that become repetitive or dull from overuse? I find that the surest sign of jargon is repetition. When we fall in love with some exotic word, we tend to overuse it — so that it then becomes not only too exotic, but worse, a cliche. If you use it too often, it’s always a sign of trouble, whether you call it ‘jargon’ or not.

The group also mentioned a few helpful websites during their discussion:
Communications Network’s Jargon Finder tool:  http://www.comnetwork.org/Jargon_Finder
Tony Proscio’s website has thought-provoking (and funny!) papers on jargon:  http://www.tonyproscio.com/#Jargon?id=Jargon%20Essays

The full transcript of this online conversation can be viewed here:


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