Plain English or dumbing down?

I’ve recently seen a great illustration by Helen Reynolds bouncing around on LinkedIn and Twitter about the comms approval process (recommend a look). One of the steps Helen has included is clients or colleagues adding in jargon for the comms person to then replace with plain English. I have some thoughts about this and have chatted with the rest of the CIPR East Anglia committee about ways of tackling conversations about jargon.

In a typical week we’ll all read, hear and use phrases that are sector, organisation and discipline-specific. I work with project managers, IT people, university administrators and academics so for me this can include things like: “We’re adopting an agile approach to reduce project risk.”, “What is the RAG status?”, and “What was GrAdmin and the UTF’s reaction to this?”.

It saves time to use these phrases with people who definitely understand but it can also massively stand in the way of connecting with people and landing a message. Besides, jargon can be ambiguous. Ask 10 different people in IT what ‘agile’ means and you’ll get a variety of answers.

At sticking points in the comms approval process there is often someone saying that making things clearer is ‘dumbing down’ or ‘being fluffy’. Common protests are “This is complicated. We shouldn’t make it sound simple.”; “We want to sound credible” and “I think the audience will understand.”

Where to go from there if you disagree? Here are some of our ideas.

  1. Clients often have no idea they use jargon and to simpler alternatives they say the detail is lost. I always ask them who their audience is and what do they read – it usually works. On the whole I find clients are amenable to anyone who can simplify things. – Andi Hodgson
  2. It depends on the audience. If it is an article for health professionals that terminology is expected – otherwise you would be thought less of. But having worked on Easy Read versions of some of our documents, it’s really opened my eyes how simple we can actually make things without losing meaning. – Nic Wray
  3. Run the wording through a readability test like Fleischmann’s to back up your claims that the audience won’t connect with the comms. And test acronyms out with audiences in surveys! – Sarah Roberts
  4. I find it helpful to use my clients’ ‘jargon’ while building relationships, and be sensitive to the fact that they want to demonstrate their credibility when discussing simplifying comms to match their audience. Research the language that your audiences use. – Jez Peters
  5. By the time I have asked clients what all the words/phrases/jargon mean they usually work out for themselves that there is a problem… – Sally Pattinson

What has worked for you when you’ve been asked to include jargon that you think should be scrapped? It would be interesting to hear your experiences and opinions.

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