Closing the Barn Door on Jargon

A few years ago, the day after one of our corporate video shoots in an elderly lady’s home, the cinematographer called me to say he was missing a barn door. “I called the lady,” he said worriedly, “but she said that no, she had not seen any barn doors.”

I can’t imagine what must have gone through the lady’s mind when she was asked that question. Was this camera guy a few cards short of a deck? What was he doing hauling around barn doors and how could he possibly lose one?

This is a colorful example of jargon and the confusion it can cause.

Barn doors, in the film business, are the metal flaps that are fitted around a light to shape the beam of light, narrowing or widening it by opening or partially closing the flaps. They are industry jargon.

Use jargon at your own risk

Jargon, slang, argot, buzz words, gobbledygook – it all amounts to the same thing when it comes to communication. And we’re all guilty of using it. Every industry has its own. It’s a shorthand way of communicating that is specific to each industry. Some even put out their own glossaries.

But it can also mask real meaning according to Jennifer Chatman, management professor at the University of California-Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others,” she says.

You’re fired! But you would never know it

Masked meaning abounds in the following statement to the media from Ford Australia’s CEO Bob Graziano in May of 2013: “To better position the company to compete in a highly fragmented and competitive market, Ford will cease local manufacturing in October 2016. All entitlements are protected for the 1200 employees whose jobs are affected, and the company will work through the next three years to provide support.”

Translation: Ford is firing 1200 people.

When management speak is “unspeak”

“In his article http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/apr/25/top-10-worst-management-speak on the top ten worst examples of management speak, Stephen Poole of theguardian.com writes: “Bureaucratese is a maddeningly viral kind of Unspeak engineered to deflect blame, complicate simple ideas, obscure problems, and perpetuate power relations.”

I didn’t have to look far to find some numbing examples of jargon. The Plain English Campaign website. http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/campaigning/examples.html provides some cringe worthy doozies from the financial, legal and medical and health sectors. Here’s one taken from contract regulations for public works that strains credulity:

‘References in these Regulations to a regulation are references to a regulation in these Regulations and references to a Schedule are references to a Schedule to these Regulations.’

No doubt the legal field is a notorious offender. As is medicine, sadly, much of it demeaning to the patient. Medical slang is inner circle jargon not meant to be understood by the patient. Ever heard of DPS? It stands for Dumb Patient Syndrome. OPD? Obnoxious Personality Disorder. Or Blue Bloater – signifying an obese person in respiratory arrest. Happy Little Campers are children in oxygen tents.

Elderly people using walkers or wheelchairs might be referred to as “creepers” or “crumble” heading to the “departure lounge” (geriatric ward) or “doing the twirly” or “circling the drain” (about to die). Even more demeaning: GPO meaning “Good for Parts Only,” e.g. won’t survive. And these are some of the milder euphemisms.

I found them on this website (warning – it isn’t pretty): http://messybeast.com/dragonqueen/medical-acronyms.htm

As the site points out, thanks to greater awareness and ethical concerns, acronyms, slang and jargon are less common in the medical field today. As with police work, black humour, irreverence and euphemism are a way to cope with the horrors of crime, injury, disease and death in a coded manner.

Fluff has its favorite unspeak as well. Fashion magazine pages are jammed with the latest “must have” item that is “trending” for that particular “season”. What makes that item, along with dozens of others littering the pages of countless magazines, a “must have” at any given time? Will it be life changing if you are not sporting the “hottest” “just-off-the-runway” colors “new this season?”

Are you alienating your audience?

Jargon can anesthetize your readers to meaning, confuse them and alienate them. It will most certainly lose them.

Translating jargon is one of the things professional writers keep top of mind when crafting copy for clients. And it’s something you can do too. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes – will they understand your bureaucratic “unspeak”? Will they even bother to try?

We’re all in a time crunch. We want information and we want it quickly. The reader almost always has the choice to opt out of your important message if you make the going tough by using impenetrable language.

So stop and think before you use industry specific language with a general audience. Maybe you can run your copy past someone not in the industry. Of course if you want to ensure that your words resonate with your readers you can always hire a professional writer!

In a world of “non-product outputs,” shifting paradigms,” and “leveraging synergies,” let’s stop a moment to consider if we are really communicating.

Script to Screen Video offers professional writing and video production services. In posts to come I’ll be providing tricks and tips on both writing and video production.

I’ll reveal some of the secrets about little things you can do to make dynamic professional looking video and hone your marketing content. And from time to time I will spice things up with a few behind-the-scenes revelations of my years as a journalist profiling celebrities.

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