This article was originally published on Built In by Alexander Lewis.
What is jargon, anyway? In a literal sense, jargon is simply a word or phrase that requires specialized knowledge for the reader to understand. For our purposes — which include helping people at technical companies write clearly about their offerings — that definition isn’t practical. Most of us only think of the word “jargon” in a negative sense. It’s something we’re supposed to avoid in our writing at all costs.
But that’s not quite accurate. After all, good writing and technical writing are not antonyms. If the audience on your website has specialized knowledge, then there’s nothing wrong with using some industry parlance to communicate your offering.
So where do we draw the line between jargon and necessary parlance?
I believe what we’re really trying to solve is how to write about a technical product in a way that sticks in the reader’s mind. We want our copy to be memorable and clear, without being dumbed down. That’s why in this article, I’ll break down my own more practical definition of jargon and five tactics for how to find the right replacement words and phrases.
A copywriter’s definition of jargon
When it comes to writing for a business, I find it helpful to define jargon as any business word or phrase that lacks a visual component to stick in the reader’s head. Non-visual words are forgotten almost as soon as they’re read because there’s nothing visual, emotional, or otherwise sticky about them.
Consider a phrase like “business solution.” When used in a sentence (“ABC Corp. delivers best-in-class business solutions”), you lose the reader. There’s nothing about the phrase to cause it to stick in the reader’s mind. Asking a reader to visualize a “business solution” is like asking them to grab fog.
Fortunately, there are several easy shortcuts you can use to find clearer, simpler, and “stickier” words.
How to write memorable, jargon-free copy
Tactic #1: Trade vague for visual
A lot of jargon is the result of speaking in generalities instead of specifics. The carwash down the street isn’t marketed as “a water-based transformation solution for vehicles.” The operation is called a carwash. It’s the clearest, simplest, and most visual term for what is being offered.
When you’ve written a sentence about your product or company, do the visualization test. Look at each word in the sentence and determine if your words have a visual counterpart. As soon as you do this, words like “synergy,” “solution,” or “tactical” are the first to the chopping block.
Tactic #2: 1 point per sentence
Don’t try to impress with long, comma-packed sentences. If you have multiple points to make, save each of them for their own sentence. It’s easiest to remember the details of something we’ve read when the finer details are broken down into individual sentences.
Just think about it: Long sentences are often filled with extraneous detail, and they drag the reader on, and on, and on until they’re just skimming your words, speed reading your copy, or skipping to the next section to avoid the long-winded mess before it exhausts them.
Instead, slow down. Keep sentences short. Simple is more memorable.
Tactic #3: Write in an email, not a doc
Even for experienced writers, a blank document with a flashing cursor can be deeply intimidating. Word and Google Docs cause many of us to write like self-important professors, thinking only of lofty words instead of short, crisp ones.
Just change your context. Start writing about your product in the body of an email or in a physical notebook. It may even help you to start with an introduction like “Dear Mom” to help you take things less seriously. This practice gets you out of your own head. It puts your mind at ease, allowing you to write using a more conversational tone.
Tactic #4: Read reviews of your product
You know who almost never uses jargon when talking or writing about your products? Customers.
If you’re looking for inspiration for easy words and phrases to use in your copy, just read some online reviews. Better yet, get on the phone with one of your best customers.
This is the first place I turn when starting a new website copywriting project. Customers have the best language for talking about your product because they’ve never been influenced by all the technical specs, years of meticulous product development, and marketing-speak that you have.
Reading customer language saves you time and nine times out of 10 will produce better copy than anything you’d write on your own.
Tactic #5: Answer ‘What’s in it for me?’
One of the most common causes of jargon is simply writing about details your customers don’t care about. This comes down to what many marketers call the difference between features and benefits. Features are specs. Benefits are how your features positively impact the customer.
This is the famous iPod slogan, “1,000 songs in your pocket,” in action. While other music players were talking about gigabytes and storage, Apple cut to the chase. They named what mattered to their customers: being able to listen to all their favorite songs, wherever they go.
So the next time you write a sentence or paragraph about your product, imagine your best customer could read that line. Would they get excited about what you just wrote? Or would they grimace and ask, “What’s in it for me?”
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