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10-4, Good Buddy: The Uses and Abuses of Jargon

When I was in high school, for some reason CB radio chatter became trendy. Urban middle class kids suddenly thought it was cool to talk like a blue-collar trucker, and began using jargon like 10-4, and “What’s your 20?” and “Put the hammer down”. But they really just sounded stupid, because jargon that does not fit both the sender and the receiver at the same time is useless and even harmful. On the other hand, it can be very effective if used properly.

You hear it all the time in presentations. It may be technical jargon, or cultural or even company-specific. Usually speakers use excessive jargon for different reasons than the kids used to use CB jargon—rather than using it self-consciously they are unaware that they are using it, buy because they and those around them use it all the time. The result is a presentation that is not fully understood by the listeners, who are often too polite, too indifferent or too intimidated to say anything. So they just tune out. A useful antidote is to give the presentation to a friend or a family member who is not familiar with the terms you use at work all the time.

Jargon gets a bad reputation because it usually only becomes noticeable when it leads to miscommunication, but it can actually be a very efficient and credible form of communication. Complicated concepts can be communicated quickly with just a short phrase or even an acronym. It’s possible to do because members of the same in-group have enough shared experiences to be able to develop short cuts for expressing them. Over time the short-cuts get so ingrained in their way of speaking that they forget that others don’t know what it means, just like a fish is not aware of the water it swims in.

It’s because of that shared meaning that people who use the jargon correctly can have instant credibility. You probably have to know your audience or your customer well enough to use the jargon correctly, so if you can pull it off, the right jargon can be a tremendous asset.

The absolutely key word in that last paragraph is correctly. There are two risks. The first is that it’s easy to hear a term used once and think you have grasped its meaning, but you may run the risk of sounding slightly off-kilter when you use it. In that case, your use of the jargon can backfire and your listeners could turn against you. The second risk is that you could get it right, but some devious audience member may decide to test you a bit and find out how well you really know it, either by asking additional questions or one-upping you on the use of jargon to put you in your place.

To ensure that neither of these happens, ask someone you trust from the target in-group to advise you on the use of the term. Make sure you’re totally comfortable with it before you use it in conversation or a presentation with others. Also, be a little hesitant and humble the first time you use it. “If I understand the term correctly…”

Jargon can make you look really smart or turn into a big negatory; do you copy?

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