iStock_000078739883_MediumOne of the most common issues we deal with in our presentation training sessions is the misuse of jargon.

We once worked with a participant who was representing a nuclear power plant. The plant had recently been targeted over the perceived danger of its facility to the surrounding area’s water supply, and as its representative, our client was called upon to alleviate public concerns. His initial message was an attempt at doing so: “There are a minimal amount of picocuries in your water.”

The public, unsurprisingly, was not appeased. While he had intended to be reassuring, nobody outside of the nuclear industry had any idea what “picocuries” were, and they definitely didn’t want ANY of them in their water.

The cause of the disconnect? An unfortunate use of jargon.

So, what is jargon?

The concept of jargon refers to words that are unique to a specific culture or organization that may not be understood by individuals outside of that culture – or, in other words, the general public.

While cultural language bubbles aren’t inherently bad, they become troublesome when words are used outside of their original contexts in an attempt to convey information to an unfamiliar audience. That creates a disconnect that leads to a lack of understanding, and, ultimately, to a failed presentation. We all want to avoid bad presentations.

How to speak clearly and avoid jargon

We’re all guilty of speaking jargon at times, because we all have a tendency to repeat the language we’re familiar with. Our natural inclination to rely on jargon can be combatted, though, with attention to a few helpful tips.

Use the language of the living room.
We like to remind our clients to “speak the language of the living room”. When you’re presenting, don’t expect your audience to understand all of the terms that you’re familiar with.

We once worked with a retailer who was attempting to gauge its customers’ perceptions of their “retail experience”. The problem was that their customers weren’t exactly sure what a “retail experience” was supposed to be, so they weren’t able to accurately answer the question. We recommended that the client use a more common term instead. After all, at the end of a mall outing, you don’t tell your friends that you had a great “retail experience”. You tell them that you had a nice “shopping trip”. Try to explain concepts in common, everyday terms, or what we call the language of the living room.

Don’t assume that those within your industry are familiar with your terms.
We’ve often seen gaps in language between professionals in a common industry, and sometimes even between employees in the same company. With different divisions, responsibilities, and working conditions, you can’t always assume that the terms you consider to be commonplace will actually be understood. Make sure you bridge the use of your terms with simple explanations or reminders.

Read your presentation to a fifth grader.
A helpful test for jargon is to read your presentation to a fifth grader – or just somebody outside of your industry – before presenting. Ask if they understand the concepts that you’re attempting to explain. If they don’t, there’s a good chance your intended audience won’t either. A great example of this was a participant in one of our trainings who had a seemingly natural gift for explaining himself without jargon. When I asked how he did it, he stated, ”I’m a homeschool parent of middle school kids. I teach them science and math and I have to make hard concepts easy to understand.” He’s right. It’s not condescending; it’s in service to your listener to make sure every concept you are trying to convey is understood.

Explain your terms
Sometimes, a term that might qualify as jargon is simply the only way of communicating an idea. When this is the case, make sure that you take the time to explain your language. If you’ll need to use an acronym or a technical phrase to accurately communicate your information, go ahead and explain its meaning for the sake of clarity.

You’d be surprised at how often terms that nobody understands go unquestioned during presentations. It’s because each person believes that everyone else in the room understands the term already, and nobody wants to look unintelligent by asking for clarification. Save everyone the trouble and avoid miscommunication by explaining things, just in case.

No more jargon.

So, in the wake of our client’s failed attempt to comfort the public about their drinking water, what happened next? Fortunately, we were able to help him to remove his technical jargon so that he could clearly convey his message.
Instead of discussing “minimal amounts of picocuries”, we helped him to create a simpler message: “the water is safe to drink.” The public response was much more positive, simply because they could understand what he was saying.

Don’t let jargon kill your presentation. For helpful tips and assistance on clearing up your language, get involved with our presentations training so that you can communicate as clearly and effectively as possible.