The Most Dangerous Type of Jargon?

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A Sunday newspaper headline this month made me realise that there are two types of jargon. Both should be avoided when dealing with the media, but one can have more significant consequences.   The first type is the annoying kind of business buzzword which crops up in any number of lists of ‘worst business jargon of 2023’ and so on – ‘thinking outside the box’, ‘going forward’, ‘circling back’, ‘growth hacking’ and so on.  We know what they mean (sort of) but they are annoying and cheesy.  The second type is potentially much more serious, as it can often not seem like jargon at all, as we think “we” know what it means, so surely it’s obvious?  But often it’s not obvious to lots of people, and can lead to real misunderstandings.  For instance in the financial world, bankers know of AML as standing for the Anti Money Laundering regulations.  So presumably ML means money laundering?  Not necessarily.  In insurance and many other sectors it’s taken to mean Machine Learning.  Often it’s a matter of context – AML to a doctor means Acute Myeloid Leukaemia, though in a hospital, it’s unlikely to be confused with the other type of AML.  However, that’s not always the case.

Sometimes we don’t think we’re using jargon at all.  This was brought to mind by the Sunday newspaper piece which said that that the Prime Minister’s efforts to take the credit for ‘falling inflation’ risks backfiring, because half of the public don’t know what the phrase means.  According to YouGov, 36pc thought it meant prices were actually falling, rather than just not rising as quickly.  We have to remember not everyone has studied economics, so what is taken for granted in a CNBC interview may not land elsewhere.  Often when we pick these points up when running Media Training courses, people have no idea they’re not always being clear.

The conclusion is hardly a new one, though always worth re-emphasising.  Whether public speaking or being interviewed, don’t assume that the audience knows as much about your topic as you do.  Never talk down, but try to find simpler, more vernacular phrases where possible.  If you can’t avoid acronyms, at least spell them out as you go for the benefit of newcomers.  So you might say ‘so far as AML’s concerned, the anti money-laundering regulations, what we’re doing is …’  rather than just saying AML and hoping you’re not leaving the audience not really listening to your next point, as they’re struggling to work out what you were talking about.

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