Beyond PR

Mar 23, 2012

5 Ways to Fight Client Jargon

Each week, Dear Gracie answers PR and media questions from ProfNet Connect readers with advice from our network of nearly 50,000 ProfNet experts. Has there been a question burning in your mind lately, something you’ve been wondering that none of your colleagues can answer? Please send it to

Dear Gracie,

Do you have any useful tips on how I can convince my clients to tone down their use of jargon and industry terminology, like in a press release, for example? Sometimes they’re hesitant to take my advice and explain their work in simpler terms. What can I say to persuade them?

Slang Stopper


Dear Slang Stopper,

Three ProfNet experts provide some insight on how to combat client jargon:

Why the Mumbo Jumbo Needs to Go

Specialized terms are used by all manner of companies, in nearly every profession, because it makes communication faster and easier among colleagues, says Alison Cohen, senior manager of media relations at Education Development Center (EDC).

Problems arise when experts believe they can use the same language — like insider shorthand, acronyms and overly long descriptions — with everyone else, says Cohen. They do not always realize that reporters, donors, lawmakers and the general public lose interest when they hear “proposal speak,” explains Cohen.

“Proposal speak” happens when “help” become “technical assistance,” “use” becomes “utilize” or “assistance” becomes “capacity building for a range of stakeholders,” for example.

These words only serve to cloud the message and keep potential allies at bay, Cohen continues. Reporters in particular just want to get to the heart of the matter.

Clarity and simplicity are particularly important on social networks, says Anthony J. DeFazio, president of DeFazio Communications. “Clients need to be concerned with the fact that social networks require ease of use and clear understanding of information to be shared.” Without that, their message will not be retweeted or posted on industry blogs and forums.

Industry slang isn’t always just generated by the experts themselves either — sometimes buzzwords appear after they’ve gone through the marketing department or C-level management too, adds Paula Gould, owner of PEG PR.

Jargon-busting is possible, though, so it’s important for media consultants to work with experts to help them remove excessive industry terms from their speech, says Cohen. Experts need to discover another way to talk about their work and why it matters.

Why Experts Resist Sometimes

“Long-held habits are heard to break, and many are resistant to change,” says Cohen. It can be a challenge to separate experts from their industry language since it has served them well on a daily basis and can be difficult to translate for other audiences, says Cohen.

Furthermore, experts might think that using plain, jargon-free language is condescending and “dumbed down,” she says. But it’s just the opposite — plain language does not alienate anyone.

Experts might also think that using complicated words makes them seem more serious and important, Cohen continues. For example, using “text-based resource” instead of “book” is not the way to go.

How to Let Go of the Lingo

1. Edit and Explain: Edit out the buzzwords for your client and explain why the information has to be clear and simple and in laymen’s terms, says Gould.

“The key is to give the client honest feedback as soon as you recognize it as inappropriate and ineffective,” adds DeFazio.

If the client’s goal is publicity and coverage, then why force a reporter to translate for their audience? explains Gould. The expert should be considering how the audience will read and absorb the information, and tailoring their quotes accordingly.

Provide an alternative to persuade them, suggests DeFazio.

2. Consider the Competition: By eliminating the fluff, clients will give themselves a significant advantage over their competitors, says Gould.

Journalists and bloggers tend to know their beats and the industry landscape anyway, so it’s not the client or PR person’s job to wow reporters with marketing tactics. “Rather, it’s our job to wow them with knowledge of the space and how the client is different and important,” she says.

3. Use Examples: Ask your client to provide examples and place the work in context, says Cohen. One example can do more to explain “how” and “why” than a thousand words.

4. Try “Banana Words”: A “banana word” is an idea coined by Professor Carl Sessions Stepp at the University of Maryland, which refers to the idea that some words can only have one meaning and are therefore crystal clear to every audience, says Cohen.

Words like “banana,” “sidewalk” or “dolphin” can only be interpreted in one way, as opposed to words like “capacity,” “sustainability” or “intervention.” Why use the word “assessment” if you can just say “test”? she says.

5. Tell “Uncle Bob”: If the expert can explain their work to a family member without their eyes glazing over, says Cohen, then your choice of words is probably fine. However, if they start tuning you out or ask “What does that mean?” it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

Clarity of message and mission is essential to appealing to the general public and media, stresses Cohen. With some effort and practice, experts can incorporate generic components of efficacious interventions — that is, learn!


Written by Grace Lavigne, senior editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. Dear Gracie is published weekly on ProfNet Connect, a free social networking site for communicators. To read more from Grace, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Gavin Llewellyn.

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