The Jargon Jumble: How to Impress Clients, but Lose the Press

PAN Communications

Recently, none other than Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group that includes Virgin Airlines and Virgin Records, posted on LinkedIn about his disdain for jargon. Branson states, “Personally, I find this simply slows things down, confuses people and causes them to lose interest.”

With the Interop IT Conference and Expo taking place this week, I am reminded of an experience that illustrates this confusion over jargon. I was working for a company whose main product was one of the forerunners of WAN optimization, so conversations amongst us often revolved around improving the speed of computer networks and servers.

We’d had a very successful debut at the show and were celebrating with dinner at a fine steakhouse in Las Vegas following the close of Interop. As we dined, we frequently discussed the drawbacks of “slow servers” and how our product would be able to improve upon their performance. What we did not realize is that our waiter, who had been doing a marvelous job up to that point, had overheard us mentioning the term “slow servers” so often that before the end of the meal the manager had come over to our table to apologize for the bad service.

While this wasn’t a media opportunity, it demonstrates how the use of jargon can mislead or confuse people. Even though clients and we ourselves as PR professionals know what we are talking about – or at least think we do – too much jargon can create a barrier between ourselves and our target audience that leaves them unsure of the point.

Yet as we become more immersed in our clients’ businesses, the likelihood of spewing jargon becomes greater because it is generally easier to use these industry-acceptable terms rather than spelling out what we mean by them. But is it simplicity or laziness that drives us?

As someone who has practiced tech PR for the better part of the last couple decades, terms like HTML, SEO and gigabyte seem like rather common terms; I have seen many instances of these terms being used without explanation. However, in a study conducted by Vouchercloud.net, a coupons website, which was published recently in the Los Angeles Times, these terms proved not so common after all.

According to the survey:

  • 11% thought HTML was a sexually transmitted disease
  • 77% of respondents could not identify what SEO means
  • 27% identified "gigabyte" as an insect commonly found in South America
  • 42% said they believed a "motherboard" was "the deck of a cruise ship"
  • 23% thought an "MP3" was a "Star Wars" robot
  • 18% identified "Blu-ray" as a marine animal.
  • 12% said "USB" is the acronym for a European country

Even a term as seemingly commonplace in today’s language as “software” was identified by 15 percent of respondents as “comfortable clothing.”

If the general public has this much difficulty with basic tech terminology, how could we ever expect them to understand concepts like Digital Convergence, APIs, Software Defined Networks or WAN Optimization? Throwing these terms around doesn’t prove knowledge of the topic, but rather that the user has been able to rehash what his or her client has said.

For true proof of understanding, and to ensure that messages are understood by the media and their readers, the simplest terms and succinct definitions should be used by PR pros as introductions to these terms and to get their messages across properly…although I must admit, it was quite nice to be comp’d for dessert that last night of Interop for the message we inadvertently gave to our waiter.

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