Avoiding the Trap of Industry Jargon

Image Source: D.Fletcher, CloudTweaks.com

Image Source: D.Fletcher, CloudTweaks.com

Let’s pretend that the makers of Advil were a client of ours (they are not), and they wanted us to explain what ibuprofen is to the general consumer. If you Google “ibuprofen,” you get a wide variety of definitions, including the following:

  • From isobutylphenylpropanoic acid, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug used as an analgesic and antipyretic and for symptomatic relief of dysmenorrhea, vascular headaches, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, and other rheumatic and nonrheumatic inflammatory disorders.
  • A nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). It works by blocking your body’s production of certain natural substances that cause inflammation. This effect helps to decrease swelling, pain, or fever.

I don’t know about you, but the second definition makes a heck of a lot more sense to me. (Thank you, WebMD!)

This is not to knock the first definition – I purposefully chose it to make a point. The first definition wasn’t written for the average layperson – it was created by a medical writer for a medical audience.

The second definition, of course, is intended for the general consumer.

While not in every situation, it is frequently the case that when we work with a client to develop messaging or any other kind of content, the target audience is, if not the general consumer, at least not an expert in the client’s industry. Our job is to take the industry lingo and terminology and turn it into something that the “average layperson” can understand.

The trick, though, is that the more familiar you are with that lingo and terminology, the harder it can be to break out of using it. I’ve worked with a large number of health care clients over the years, and have started using acronyms and terms I never in a million years thought I’d toss around so casually. It can become a real trick to step back and explain things in “plain English.”

But this isn’t unique to the health care field. Every industry has its own lingo, and if you stick around that industry long enough, you start to pick it up. Our job – and it can sometimes be a real challenge – is to be that sounding board for clients and sound the alarm when industry jargon starts to take over.

Obviously, we all know and preach this as PR practitioners, but I’ve had a few instances lately where I either found myself falling into the jargon trap or had to play the role of anti-jargon evangelist, so I figured others might benefit from having a friendly reminder on this front as well.

One of the best tricks I’ve found – and I have to thank the same wonderful client who turned me on to WebMD as a great example of explaining medical terms in easy-to-understand ways – is to ask a colleague who is not at all familiar with your client or their industry to review the messages you’ve written. If your messages make sense to your colleague, you’re on the right track. If, on the other hand, they come back to you with an utterly confused look on their face, it’s probably time for a re-write.

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