Jargon in public speaking

I recently coached a talented and charismatic executive of a nonprofit who loved jargon and insider talk. She rolled out the red carpet for every financial term, acronym and industry assumption in her lexicon.  I thought the language muddled her message; she thought it lent her authority.

The session was designed to get her ready for a conference where she would sit on a panel with two other women. A public speaking coaching session like this usually lasts two hours. We figure out what your headlines are (the short sharp sentence that conveys your bottom line) and what examples and facts will back them up. Preparing for a panel isn’t that different from preparing for TV. You have slightly more time on a panel to make your case, but a case you must make. 

Both men and women in authority assert command through insider talk and jargon. There is comfort in feeling like you are speaking a certain dialect. There is also a risk in using simple language and telling stories. What if people confuse simple sentences and plain language for lack of nuance?

Most people don’t. They associate clarity with intelligence.Think of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking–brilliant people who would never throw a scientific term at an unsuspecting audience.

People associate jargon with obfuscation and lack of clarity. It can even seem tribal. One London based banker described his job in the Guardian thus:…”you put in very long hours and collect a nice salary while employing your jargon to intimidate others.”  

When my client let go of the financial terms she struggled to replace them with common language. She had to learn how to speak again. She ended up using more words as she described her work in detail and with precision. But then something clicked. She talked about the tough choices she has to make, the people who work for her and the people she hopes to help. She talked about talent and decision making and yes, about her organization’s finances. She found her voice and her authority was clear.


Tips on how to control the jargon:

  • Ask yourself, if I used this term with a smart 10th grader would they get it? If not, let it go!
  • If you use one financial term in a paragraph that’s ok. But don’t use more than that. For example, you can talk about EBITDA but don’t immediately follow on with  ROI. People can handle one term but with two they check out.
  • Acronyms are really the worst. Everyone hates them. If you have to use an acronym define it for us.
  • Be vigilant about acronyms that sound like other acronyms. I once went to a conference where the moderator thought the panelist was talking about OPEC but he was talking about OPIC.
  •  Be aware of your audience. If you are giving a speech to non-native speakers be even more restrictive with the jargon. 
  • Watch out for your assumptions. Does everyone know the ins and outs of the Russia investigation? Nope, they do not.
  • It’s generally ok to use more jargon on a panel than on TV or with a print reporter
  • Don’t go overboard! As Chris Anderson, the head of TED notes in his book TED Talks, we all know what DNA is. “The best explainers say just enough to make the audience feel like they are coming up with the idea themselves.”