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OPINION23 June 2014

The joys of jargon: a necessary evil?

Opinion UK

Do acronyms help or hinder the marketing industry. Northstar Research Partners’ Lucy Hoang explores the issue.

The etymology of jargon stems from the Old French ‘chatter of birds.’ In current parlance, jargon can be defined as the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group. ‘Top-down’, ‘verticals’ and ‘low-hanging fruit’ are prime examples in the marketing sphere.

But is such terminology really necessary? There are two schools of thought in the discussion on jargon: Plain English – it’s simple, helps audience understanding, increases transparency and presents the message in an undiluted way; Jargon – it’s a natural, necessary by-product of the specialist areas that exist in an industry and often something cannot be expressed in any other way.

While in an ideal world we as marketers and researchers may lean toward plain English, the reality is that, no matter how hard plain English advocates argue their case, jargon will inevitably infiltrate the marketing world.

Language analytics firm Linguabrand presented findings from a study at the 2014 Annual MRS Conference which revealed that much of the copy used on the websites of leading MR companies was considered generic, and less than half of the copy was unique. ‘Know/understand’, ‘help clients’, ‘new/innovation’, ‘global’, ‘approach/way’, ‘creative’ and various combinations of these key words, all work to define the MR industry. It’s our lexicon, it’s what you expect from anyone who’s anyone in MR. You would be perceived as incompetent if these phrases weren’t part of your professional vocabulary. In fact, collective use of terminology defines one’s place within a group as well as their level of expertise.  Ultimately, jargon is a signifier for knowledge.

Consider the fresh-faced, next-gen researcher

Recently I had to define the commonplace jargon term ‘COB’ for ‘close of business’ to a junior researcher, and this really highlighted the potentially daunting situation that new researchers face when they first enter the industry. As the commercial world’s love of jargon is unlikely to change, how do we handle the teaching of such core terminology to the next generation researchers without resorting to condescending flashcards and vocab sheets? What steps should companies take to educate, not alienate?

  • Awareness: jargon exists and you can’t learn it all at once. In time they’ll talk the talk. It’s part of the learning curve.
  • You’ll never know it all: new lexical items enter the English language at an incredible pace. Keeping abreast of the industry trends will inevitably lead to an increase in your language stock.
  • There’s a time and a place: sometimes jargon’s completely unnecessary. Using jargon to sound clever will inevitably cause the opposite reaction.

While writing questionnaires, focus group moderation and client management may be top of the training and educational curriculums, it’s important that employers, mentors, line managers, senior staff and HR all have responsibility to address the issue of jargon and decrease the stigma attached to not immediately having the definitions of BIC, top-down, organic, streamlining or low-hanging fruit to hand.

Lucy Hoang is senior research executive at Northstar Research Partners

6 Comments

4 years ago

Jargon is always bad. Bad English is also to be deplored, especially long sentences and fanciful metaphors. Anything written in order to create an effect rather than to convey meaning annoys me.

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4 years ago

Great article Lucy! I have to agree with everything you say. When marketers and researchers are engaging with consumers and respondents we should write as they would - in English. But as an industry I think it requires an internal language, it exists in every specialist sector.

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4 years ago

I agree about jargonschmargon. If you are thinking audience in your communications, then their perspective will help you decide whether jargon is appropriate or not. I was involved in a recent benchmarking exercise which revealed that high performing companies were twice as likely as the average at keeping thier language simple and jargon-free. For more info see: bit.ly/11waysblog.

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4 years ago

I think that some jargon is both inevitable and helpful. However, the starting point has to be the reader and what helps the communication be received by the reader in the way the writer intended. Bad jargon is anything that confuses or reduces the ability of readers to benefit from the writing. Good jargon includes things that: 1) Make the meaning clearer 2) Reduce the effort required of the reader 3) Place the emphasis of the message in the right place. Examples of each of the above, in contexts where the reader is likely to know the meaning, include: 1) Referring to Grids when describing survey questions is more specific and clearer than a 'plain English' description. 2) Referring to CATI instead of spelling it out, or instead of a plain English description reduces the reader's cognitive load. RDD (Random Digit Dial) is an even better example, when you are sure the reader is familiar with the term. 3) The fairly new term C-suite refers collectively to people like CEOs, COOs, CFOs (Chief Executive Officer - i.e. the boss, Chief Operations Officer - often the person running the bits of the company that make it work, and Chief Financial Officer - the person running the financial side of the business, in particular the accounts). If the reader can reliably be assumed to to know the term C-suite, then a sentence can be written about the need to communicate with the C-suite without the sentence having to focus on the detail of who, which is important when the focus should be on the message. Every in-group has its within code which allows for faster, more accurate communication (from astronauts to drinking teams), and every specialism has words that allow it to reduce ambiguity and make communication more efficient. The key, as Lucy makes clear, is making sure that the writer takes the reader into account and I particularly like the point about removing the stigma of not knowing.

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4 years ago

Thanks for all your comments. There's clearly a fine line between getting your point across efficiently and reducing cognitive load and confusing the reader. A theme that comes out of all comments above is to 'know your audience.' Put your audience to the forefront and adapt your lexical choices/style appropriately - I'm a big fan of dialect and variation in speech/writing, but I recognise there' s always a time and a place. This rule definitely applies to the marketing world.

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4 years ago

Our MRS presentation wasn't about jargon Lucy. It was about babble. We were highlighting that research companies, like many others, are using largely generic propositions. These make it difficult to differentiate one company from another. There will be some must-have generics, of course. But more thought and analysis should be put into the language we use in business. It's a huge and under-utilised resource, rich in opportunity.

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