Jargon vs. simplicity

Words exist to communicate feelings and ideas, but jargon only exists (in my opinion) for people to hide behind.

Throw in some jargon and you sound like an innovator. Like the investment fund CEO I interviewed once—I’d been hired to write a marketing brochure for his firm, so I asked the obvious question: “How are you different from other funds?”

He sat up straight in his chair, puffed out his chest with pride and said something like,

“We look for stocks that represent good value and we keep them in our portfolio until they trade at a premium.”

“Oh,” I said. “Buy low/sell high.”

“Um…yeah,” he admitted. Was he snowing me or just testing my ability to perform simultaneous translation? You never knew with those old Wall Street guys.

Some people use jargon because they don’t want you to know what they’re talking about. I considered the possibility that the fund guy was obfuscating to shield his firm’s proprietary trading strategy. But you can’t build an effective marketing campaign on jargon, because sooner or later someone like me will translate it and see there’s no “there” there. So we kept talking and eventually he gave me something I could use.

Other people use jargon because, I strongly suspect, they have no actual idea what they’re talking about. They just string official-sounding words together in the same configurations they’ve heard from others and hope no one calls them on it. If you sound important enough, chances are someone (besides yourself) will decide you are important.

Politics usually offers us abundant examples of this phenomenon. This year, the words are getting shorter and the syntax simpler. At least from one candidate.

When Donald Trump reads from a prepared text, he speaks at an eighth- or ninth-grade level. And that’s appropriate. A speech is not a doctoral dissertation; listeners need to be able to grasp your concepts easily. But when he speaks off the cuff, it’s a very different story. I was shocked when I tested his South Carolina victory speech on the invaluable Hemingway app. It registered at a second-grade level. Second-grade! He’s not running for president of the student body; he wants to be president of the United States.

Complexity is not always a bad thing. When we have a complex idea to communicate, for instance, we may need to use more sophisticated syntax. The key is having something to say to begin with, and an intention to make your thoughts clear to another human being.

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