Jargon Schmargon: Follow the (Planet) Money

If you’re one of the tens of  . . . okay, tens . . . of people who read this blog with regularity, you may have seen my post about writing well for the web.

I recently led a workshop about this topic. So in preparation, I started trolling the web for examples of good writing. Since the workshop group was of a corporate ilk, I started with corporate sites—and specifically, the financial sector. My reasoning: Who has a bigger incentive to provide clear, eloquent, and easily digestible content than our much maligned financial behemoths?

Let’s just say, I was unimpressed with what I found: Page after page of barely comprehensible jargon and gibberish that never came close to answering the inevitable question, “What the &*^$ happened to my money??!?!”

I can hear the protests of financial copywriters: “This is complicated stuff! Is it our fault that minions can’t understand it?”

In a word: Yes.

A truly good communicator can take even the most sophisticated concept and frame it in an understandable way—without leaning on a gold-tipped cane of fancy jargon.

Exhibit A:  NPR’s extraordinary podcast, Planet Money, which breaks down the economic crisis in three weekly installments and manages to make the subject not only comprehensible, but also entertaining.
It’s not that Planet Money is a jargon-free zone; it’s just that they go to the trouble to explain  what the jargon means. Rather than simply rattling off terms like “credit default swap,” “naked short-selling,” and “mark it to market,” they take the trouble to tell you what the terms mean.

It all boils down to the Golden Rule of communication: Know Your Audience. Jargon is perfectly appropriate in certain cases. If you’re talking to (or writing a site for) specialists or experts in your field, you wouldn’t sound credible unless you used it. But if your audience members aren’t knee-deep in your industry, take a lesson from Planet Money and respect them enough to speak their language.

Who are your favorite online communicators?

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