Jargon

I just ran across another example of something that,in the technical writing field, is as common as trash. I was reading a bookthat was obviously aimed at an audience that was unfamiliar with a particulartechnology. The author, however, was using terms that would only be known bysomeone who was already familiar with this material. The result was a piece ofwriting that could be useless to the initiated (they already knew this stuff)and impenetrable to the ignorant. The danger exists that the only thing that the piece might accomplish is to impress the reader with how much the authormust know. It’s this kind of incident that gives jargon a bad name.

It used to be said that the Inuit had many more wordsfor snow than those of us living farther south. For a while, there was a theorythat the Inuit saw snow differently than we did, that the richer vocabulary forsnow reflected (in some way) the Inuit’s richer world view. However, each ofthe terms that the Inuit used could be translated into an equivalent phrase insome other language (provided that the base concept of “snow” existed in thelanguage). My personal belief is that the multiple terms certainly helped theInuit talk (and maybe even think) about snow more efficiently than I could. Butthat’s all. Even when this richer vocabulary helped the Inuit talk about snow,it was only if the conversation was with another Inuit.

I’m not opposed to using jargon. Among peers, jargonactually facilitates communication. Thinking about it, this shouldn’t besurprising that the Inuit languages are filled with terms for snow: The Inuitare snow experts. They not only live surrounded by snow, but they also have asnow technology that uses snow for temporary shelters, refrigeration, cooking,and so on. But while jargon makes experts more efficient, jargon gets in theway of talking to people who don’t know the words.

In two of my pet topics, user interface design andtechnical writing, understanding your user is critical to success. In making aliving as a consultant or an employee, knowing your user is critical togetting, keeping, and doing your job. One of the first things that you can dowhen working with a new client is to learn to speak in terms that your userunderstands. It’s tempting to try to teach your user or client yourterminology, but I think that’s self-defeating.

The likelihood that a user will remember some piece ofjargon when you use it later is small. The likelihood that they’ll understandthe full implications of the term is smaller yet. And, during the time thatyour users struggle with remembering and interpreting the term when you bringit up, they won’t be giving their full attention to whatever you were talkingabout. A worse situation is when your client can’t remember what the term meansand, having had it explained once, is too embarrassed to ask again. That’s notthe worst situation. The worst possible scenario is that your client has gotthe term wrong and doesn’t realize it. The two of you can go on for aconsiderable period of time thinking that you’re talking about the same thingbefore you discover your differences.

You need to speak your user’s language. Of course,there’s nothing stopping you from getting the user’s jargon wrong. As you pickup the user’s language, you need to keep checking with your user to make surethat you do understand what the term means and are using it correctly.

The book that I was reading, by the way, was KitchenConfidential by Anthony Bourdain. I still don’t know what a “salamander” in akitchen is, except that, I think, it’s used for keeping food warm. KitchenConfidential is a great book about the underbelly of the cooking business, and,despite the mismatch between the level of jargon and the intended audience, Ithoroughly enjoyed it. I also appreciated the definitions of some of the termsthat were provided—unfortunately—in a chapter at the end of the book. I thinkthat Bourdain didn’t define his terms because he had a literary purpose inmind: He wanted to give the reader the experience of being tossed into a newworld. I appreciated the experience in a work of entertainment. I don’t thinkit would be a good business practice. More importantly, it was worthwhile to bereminded what it must be like to be a successful business person when facedwith geek-speak.

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