There’s always a reason why people use jargon or difficult, complex language to explain stuff.
Sometimes, it’s because they think it makes them sound smart.
Other times it’s because they’ve gotten so used to talking and thinking in a certain way that they don’t realize that no one outside of a little circle understands what the heck they are talking about.
But the most surprising reason behind why people sometimes use jargon in their communications is fear.
Don’t believe me? Let me share a quick story with you.
My last day job before becoming a full-time freelancer was in the public information department for a small municipal agency in California called the Santa Monica Rent Control Board. This agency—which has been around since the late 1970s–was the direct result of a law passed by the voters to provide specific protections for tenants living in rental properties.
To say that the agency’s continued existence remains controversial to this day is an understatement. In fact, during my interview my future boss specifically wanted to know if I’d had any experience dealing with hostile audiences.
I thought I knew was getting into when I said yes. But boy, was I wrong.
To be honest, probably the only thing that could have prepared me for the pressure involved in dealing with the public as a Board employee would have been working with the IRS. (And before you ask, no I never worked for the IRS, but I imagine they also get a fair number of hate calls.)
Given its tumultuous legal history, the agency has long taken the approach of being super careful in all their communications. Given the choice between plain language and a legal term that is more accurate, they defer to the latter (in other words, legalese).
As someone who worked in the agency’s public information department for over five years, I completely understand why they hid behind all that legal language.
For one thing, they are constantly being sued.
Most of the lawsuits are insanely frivolous IMO, but the result is an extreme reluctance to communicate in clear, simple language. Their need to be precise—and hopefully not trigger another lawsuit—supersedes every other consideration. Unfortunately, the precise language of the rent control law is full of jargon that is nearly incomprehensible to outsiders.
And in this case, outsiders include the tenants who are their most important target audience.
The result is that despite having a comprehensive website that contains pretty much everything a person might want to know about the rent control law, the agency has no choice to maintain a fully staffed public information department consisting of (at least when I was there) six full-time information analysts as well as the public information manager, all of whom spend a good chunk of every day answering questions from the public.
If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “I was just on your website, but I still have a question” then I would be a very rich woman.
In this article, the last of a three part series, I show you how to write in a conversational style that can help your audience to better understand your content. The result not only saves you time and money, it allows your audience to better appreciate your services and products.
The articles in this series are:
- Part 1: Deciding what information you need to share and what you don’t
- Part 2: Organizing your web content to reflect the way people read online
- Part 3: Writing in a conversational style that makes it easier for readers to absorb your content and increase engagement
What is a conversational writing style?
The essence of a conversational writing style is writing the way you speak, even if it means bending some of the rules of grammar you learned in school.
This casual style of writing makes it easier for you to build rapport with your audience by helping them to more easily understand your content. It’s also a perfect writing style for the web.
You might be wondering if this style of writing is unprofessional. The short answer is it can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Using simple language does not automatically mean that you’ll suddenly start inserting urban slang, pop culture references, and curse words into your prose.
It does mean that given the choice between being advantageous and being helpful, you’ll be helpful.
Instead of a conversation about proficiencies, you’ll talk about skills.
Instead of renumeration, let’s cut to chase and talk about how you’re going to pay me. (wink, wink)
How informally you decide to write is completely up to you and depends on the image you’re trying to project and the audience you want to attract.
The elements of writing in a conversational style
If you listen carefully to the way you normally speak, you will probably notice that it’s completely different than the way you write. While you probably wouldn’t want to include all the “ums” and half-completed thoughts of a real-life conversation, here are four behaviors that would translate well to your written communications.
Using direct, straightforward sentences
Government agencies and large corporations are guilty of using confusing language and passive sentences.
Here’s a good example, one that’s very popular with politicians trying to avoid responsibility or blame: “Mistakes were made.”
Besides being a cliché at this point, this sentence is confusing because it leaves out the most important bit: who specifically made the mistake.
In real life, you’d be much more likely to say: “I screwed up” or “I made a mistake.” Maybe you’d even add an actual apology.
People often inadvertently fall back on using passive sentences in their writing because they think it makes them sound more corporate or professional, but the only thing is does is confuse the heck out of people.
Using simpler or shorter words
While the words you use on your website will depend on your target audience, for most people, using simpler language is nearly always the better choice.
This is a short excerpt from the Fall 2015 newsletter issued by the agency I used to work:
If you are a property owner and are not sure if you properly noticed your tenants, or if you are a tenant who did not receive a Notice of Change in Terms of Tenancy this year, you may wish to contact Rent Control to discuss your situation.
This was the closing sentence in a short article addressing a potential problem where some landlords were verbally telling their tenants to keep paying the same rent as the previous year.
Sounds great, right?
Yeah, well, not in Santa Monica where a verbal conversation about how you want your rent to get paid can create problems down the road. (After all, how do you prove the conversation took place?)
This is why the agency is taking the time to warn landlords to put everything in writing, even if they just want to confirm that they are not increasing the rent.
Given that I understand the outcome the agency is really looking for, this is how I would rewrite this sentence to make their actual point much clearer.
Please contact the Rent Control Board for guidance and information if:
- You are a landlord who verbally told your tenants to keep paying the same rent as last year, or
- You are a tenant who did not receive a written notice from your landlord that told you how much rent to pay this year.
In fact, if you think about this in marketing terms, my revised version can be considered a clear “call to action.” If X is true, then do Y.
Starting some of your sentences with conjunctions
A conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences. Contrary to popular belief, it is not bad grammar to start a sentence with a conjunction such as: and, but, or, and if.
Occasionally using incomplete sentences
Conversational-style writing for the web often includes fragmented sentences, especially as a way to make a point or show emotion. Seriously.
When simplifying your message is not worth it
After many years of working with lawyers and government officials, I’ve learned a thing or two about jargon. The most surprising part is that under specific circumstances, jargon is actually helpful.
Let’s say that you manage a health care website.
If your target audience consists of health care practitioners, then you can safely assume that they are comfortable with medical jargon. What’s more, they actually need a certain level of concrete detail and specificity to perform their jobs.
If these professionals depend on your website to provide them with current medical trends and information and you don’t use specific medical terminology in your communications, you would be doing them a significant disservice.
A certain type of audience will always be attracted to and need jargon. For them, the appeal is fairly simple:
- It’s a short cut. The words have a precise meaning that they all understand.
- Knowing the “insider” language underscores their expertise. It no doubt took a long time to understand what different words or phrases meant and they are rightfully proud of their mastery over a complex or arcane topic.
In other words, industry-speak or jargon can offer value. But that decision needs to be carefully weighed. Like everything else, it’s not about what you want, but what your audience needs.
But for most businesses, jargon creates a barrier that interferes with your ability to connect with your potential audience.
The question you have to ask yourself is are you are hiding behind your words or are you using your words to deepen your connection and better serve your audience?