When Jargon Takes Over

The dangers of arbitrarily elevating language

This article was first published in Orient magazine, 27th June 2017


By Freya Simpson Giles, Owner & Director, Giles Publications


What is the most important quality of good marketing or corporate communications copy?


Depending on the purpose, you might think a piece should be respectful, sophisticated, accurate, engaging or full of brand personality. While important, these qualities are all stylistic considerations.


The most important element of any successful communication is clarity. This cannot be overemphasised, and should be top of mind whenever pen goes to paper – or fingers to keyboard.


Unfortunately, there are many ways to muddy a message. Jargon is one of them.


Expressing, not concealing


A famous lover of plain English was George Orwell. The author felt so strongly about the importance of clear and concise language that he produced “six rules for writing” designed to guide the writer. These include: cut out unnecessary words, use short words in place of longer options, always use the active voice, and avoid overused metaphors or figures of speech. Although Orwell penned his advice in the 1940s, it remains relevant today, especially in marketing and business communications.


Rule number five in Orwell’s list was, “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” He explained that language should be used “as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”


When jargon takes over, engaging, inspiring or prompting the reader to action becomes as impossible as their struggle to extract the message. The dangers of jargon range from the irritating (wasting a co-worker’s time) to the costly (an unsuccessful marketing campaign) to the legally contentious (hiding or twisting the truth). Using impenetrable prose may not only render your communication ineffective, but deeply wound your brand (or personal) reputation.


Business jargon


The use of jargon often arises from an attempt to “elevate” language to sophistication. Long-winded, obscure or even obsolete expressions are used in an attempt to sound intelligent and convey professional standing and expertise. However, this approach does not act as an architect of change to ideate the iconicity and flexponsive nature of any corporate family (read: it doesn’t work). Toe-curling corporate speak such as “swim lane” and “blue-sky thinking” falls into this category.


Then there’s industry jargon. Certain terms or acronyms have developed within particular industries to describe aspects of that sector not succinctly captured by plain English. Industry jargon may be difficult to avoid entirely – and in internal communications, where reader comprehension can be assumed, it may have a role. However, in general, using simple English and making your piece accessible to everyone should remain the aim. After all, you never know who’s picking up your annual report.  


Jargon gone wild


Some extreme cases of jargon abuse can be found in the Financial Times’ “Guffipedia”, a humorous compilation taken from real-world corporate communications.


Amusing entries highlighting particularly head-scratching turns of phrase include, “hair management system” (read: swimming cap), “entrance solution” (read: door), “affordable portable lifestyle beverage” (read: bottle of water), “bilateral telephonic meeting” (read: telephone call), “liquid workforce” (read: adaptable staff) and “life performance solutions”, which in the given context translates to socks (yes, really).


Amusing though they are, such phrases can seriously damage your attempts to communicate clearly and effectively with your stakeholders.


Straight talking


Rather than aiming for lofty language, consider what you are hoping to achieve. Whether it be convincing customers to purchase a product, requesting something of your staff or selling your colleagues on a new business idea, it is far cleverer to write in a way that achieves your goal.


Ensuring that purpose is always at the forefront of one’s mind goes a long way towards informing, engaging and educating your audience, rather than obfuscating, befuddling and bewildering.



About the author


Freya Simpson Giles is the owner and director of Giles Publications, an Asia-based communications agency. She has over 15 years’ experience as a copywriter and has produced marketing copy for clients around the world, from start-ups to large multinationals. Freya also works as a trainer, helping clients understand the fine art of communication, with tailored courses such as Copywriting 101, Writing that Sells and Business Writing.


About Giles Publications


With offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, Giles Publications is an Asia-based communications agency supporting many of the region’s best-known and best-loved organisations. The company acts as an extension of a client’s internal communications team, complementing in-house skills and bringing ideas to fruition. For more copywriting tips visit the Giles Publications blog at http://gilespublications.com/blog/