Six Tips for Using Jargon, Buzzwords and Slang

Every New Year’s resolution season, the floodgates open for “things-not-to-do-this year” articles. While they run the gamut from fitness to finance, the ones that usually get my attention are communications-related. Leading the way is the annual list of banned words from Lake Superior State University, whose skewering of overused buzzwords never fails to generate coverage from coast to coast. The resolution season also produces a slew of more personal pieces on lingo to eliminate, based on criteria such as one’s age or gender (like this one from last week’s Huffington Post).

So why do these pieces still grab my attention? Maybe it’s because specialized lingo (whether it be industry-specific jargon, marketing speak or pop culture slang) is a part of my daily work life. Or because I’m fascinated by the evolution of the English language. Then there is the paranoia aspect – no one wants to look silly using outdated phrases or incorrect terminology. And while I enjoy laughing at the inherent pompousness of many of these terms, I realize that occasionally one needs to use slang, jargon or industry-speak. Let’s face it, most people in this business have specialized vocabularies for each client and for each communications function. There are times when you have to “talk the talk” – trade show, anyone? – just as there are times when jargon and slang are counterproductive.   (Hint to tech and web people on that last one: that is more often than you think.)

So in the spirit of the season, here are my six tips for knowing when and when not to use jargon, buzzwords or slang:

1. WHEN IN ROME: Use industry-specific jargon when you are around others who are doing the same. It can be awkward (and harmful) not to demonstrate your grasp of the industry and its terms.

2. EVERYONE HATES A SHOW-OFF: Don’t use jargon gratuitously just to make yourself look smarter. Forget the old “baffle ‘em with BS” axiom…this just makes you just look like a pompous ass.

3. DON’T TALK OVER SOMEONE’S HEAD:  Don’t use unnecessarily complex terminology when pitching a project, campaign or idea. It won’t help you sell anything…quite the opposite, in fact. If they don’t understand it, they won’t sign off on it. (And they will think you are a pompous ass.)

4. KNOW YOUR TARGET: Do use jargon or slang if it fits the target audience, helps establish the brand and/or correctly positions the product.

5. KNOW YOURSELF: Does this language sound natural or forced? Does it fit who you are and what you are doing? Just like your clothes, your language should be tailored for you and your surroundings. Find an age- and function-appropriate fit.

6. IS IT FUNNY? Plenty of ad campaigns have poked fun at idiosyncratic (though correctly used) jargon. If you can pull that off, great! Also, the use of jargon or slang out of context or by someone who is a demographic mismatch for it can be hilarious – and deliver a message. Sprint’s new campaign with James Earl Jones and Malcolm McDowell is a great example.

Bottom line? When in doubt, take the jargon, slang and buzzwords out.