Jargon. Even the word itself is fairly jargon-y. You could just as easily say “clutter”, “excess”, “fluff”, or “using inside language with the outside world”. But the definition of jargon we like best is “meaningless talk”.
Among professional circles, there’s a lot of meaningless talk. Industries fall in love with certain words and then they spread like a virus. It doesn’t matter if the word has little or no meaning as long as it sounds smart.
In his great book On Writing Well (a recommended read for anyone who does any kind of writing), William Zinsser writes:
“Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple—there must be something wrong with it.”
In fact, people prefer when words are meaningless in a lot of cases. It enables them to say a lot without really saying anything. It’s human nature: We make up for not having anything to say by saying more.
Unfortunately, the nonprofit industry is not immune to “meaningless talk”. No industry is, really. Each has its own set of jargon that spreads like wildfire.
24 Words and Phrases You Should Avoid
The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently asked nonprofit professionals to share their picks for the worst nonprofit jargon. You can read some of the responses in this post, or search the hashtag #npjargon on Twitter to see more picks.
Here are two dozen words and phrases shared with this hashtag that we think can safely be eliminated from everyday use:
- Strategic partnerships
- Deep dive
- Moves management
- Core competency
- Low hanging fruit
- Impact (and impactful)
- Collective impact
- Thought leadership
- Boots on the ground
- Consensus building
As you read through that list, at least one or two of those words probably made you cringe. All of these words and phrases are either vague and confusing, or could easily be said in simpler terms. So why aren’t we doing that?
Why Do We Keep Saying These Ridiculous Things?
To get an idea of just how strange and silly the jargon organizations use is, check out this post from Nonprofits with Balls. It offers 21 overused jargon phrases and provides some new cliches to use in their place.
Here’s a few examples:
- Replace “move the needle” with “peel the butternut”
- Replace “in your wheelhouse” with “in your junk drawer”
- Replace “low hanging fruit” with “top layer of hummus”
Seeing these replacements calls attention to just how strange and ridiculous many of the sayings we use are. And we use these sayings ALL THE TIME.
Things is, these words and phrases don’t seem so strange when we use them every day. When you see them in this post, in the context of discussing jargon, it highlights how unnecessary and meaningless they are. But in everyday industry talk they just flow naturally.
That’s because they’ve been imprinted on us. It’s become natural to use these phrases. Like any habit, it can be tough to break… but it can be done.
How to Reduce Jargon in Your Communication
We’d like to say we don’t use the jargon above, but we do. Search through this blog and you’ll find it. We’re not immune and neither are you. But that doesn’t mean we can’t work to move away from this empty way of talking.
So how do you do it? One solution is to do a “jargon proof” of everything you write. Whether it’s a memo, email, mail piece, article, annual report, grant application, or whatever, read through the entire thing just looking for jargon.
When you come across the words above—or any words or phrases you identify as unclear or unnecessary—replace them with something better. Think about what you’re really trying to say. Be as simple and direct as possible.
If you do this enough with your writing, you’ll eventually start applying this process to the way you communicate all the time. You’ll stop “leveraging impact to create systematic change” and start “doing things differently”.