Office Worker Holds On to his Paperwork

Complicated Topics, No Jargon

Jargon has an awful reputation. I’ve dismissed it (okay mocked it) myself now and again. But marketing professionals adopt those much-criticized phrases and words because, within the confines of any particular industry, they often work as shortcuts to understanding complicated concepts.

When messaging must reach employees, clients, journalists or customers who are not immersed in that language, jargon doesn’t work. Rather than clarifying an issue, jargon creates confusion. That’s not the goal, obviously.

So how do you translate a tough topic to a broad readership?

Here are three good ways to do it:

1. Find the analogy

When the topic gets too complex, stop and try to describe it to a kindergartner. If necessary, get your subject matter expert to do the explaining to you this way. That forces simplicity, and usually results in a comparison to a process or product that most people understand.

My favorite example of this: A scene in The Big Short featuring Ryan Gosling using a customized Jenga game to describe the shaky foundations of the U.S. housing market due to sub-prime mortgage lending. (Fair warning: This clip includes a few words you wouldn’t want to say in front of grandma.)


By the way, this is just one of many scenes that cleverly explains convoluted financial concepts to the average person. Great movie, but also proof that the driest, most abstract and hard-to-grasp notions can be described without resorting to jargon.

2. Start hitting the delete button

I’ve mentioned this in a previous post about keeping copy short and readable, but a good communicator knows more than their reader, and sometimes that’s the problem. They feel the need to include all of it. So if it helps to write every single detail out, go ahead and do it. Then start taking out the stuff that doesn’t matter.

If that seems too difficult, set a goal to get rid of 100 words. Then see if you can take out another 50 words. Amazingly, once you start that process the extraneous stuff starts jumping out at you, just begging to be cut.

3. See how others explain the topic

I write about trucking for some of our clients, which often means hashing out what the latest government regulation means to people in the industry. Anyone who has ever read government documents knows that they are really not meant for the layperson. So I cheat.

There are many, many journalists out there who cover all sorts of industries and must translate difficult subjects for the general public. I’m the general public, so I let them interpret governmentese for me. Now, that does not mean stealing their words. But reading a few “plain English” explanations allows me to wrap my brain around the subject quickly. I always read a few different stories to be sure that they are in agreement on the basics before I settle down and do my own writing.

Test for doneness

Once that’s all done, give your copy to somebody unfamiliar with the topic you are writing about. Ask them if it makes sense. Then give it to someone who knows the topic well. Ask them if it is right.

Make both of those readers happy and you have succeeded.