Tech Terms: Sometimes, They Just Get in the Way

Lt. Hauk: “I expect every minute of the VP’s PC to be taped and broadcast within 12 hours of his arrival…”
Airman Cronauer: “Excuse me, sir? Seeing as how the VP is such a VIP, shouldn’t we keep the PC on the QT? Because if it leaks to the VC, he could end up an MIA, and then we’d all be put on KP.”
- Bruno Kirby and Robin Williams, “Good Morning, Vietnam!”

Each industry has its own special jargon: technical terminology, acronyms, and abbreviations. These specialized words and phrases enable rapid and clear communication within a given sector, such as defense, technology, medicine, transportation, and others. Even in communications fields like PR, advertising, etc., we have our own “secret” language.

For a target audience within the same industry, the appropriate use of these terms conveys proficiency and builds trust. If you speak the language, you are accepted as one who “belongs.” Even better for communication professionals, our audiences are more likely to be receptive to our messages because they are delivered in a credible and familiar way.

However, sometimes a member of a given industry needs to communicate with someone from the outside: a client, an investor, a customer, a relative…a member of the “public.” (Think of a time you’ve tried to explain to your grandma what you do for a living). People in these groups may be familiar with your space…but often, they are not. Then, instead of a benefit, this specialized vocabulary can become a hindrance to clear communication. Messages get garbled, listeners are overwhelmed with details and minutiae, and important ideas are lost in translation.

As communication experts, helping clients learn to cross the divide – to clearly convey the needed message to the target audience – is a big part of what we do. When we work with clients in specialized industries, we recommend three things when communicating to audiences that may not have the same technical background or knowledge of their space:

  • Focus on the impact to the target audience. How does this product/information/announcement/initiative affect who I’m trying to reach? Am I conveying the right information for my target audience? An essential part of effective communication is making sure that key messages clearly show the audience how they will be affected. Those are the messages that people latch onto, and that shape their emotional response: “Oh, so that will make my job easier,” or “That will help us sell more products.”
  • Be careful with your use of industry-specific terms. Watch for acronyms: try not to overwhelm with SSL VPNs, PCCPs, or HMMWVs, unless you spell them out. Sometimes, a better bet is to avoid the abbreviation all together.
  • Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm general audiences (readers, listeners, web visitors, prospective customers) with too much detail if it's not what they need. This can be a difficult step, but a necessary one – weeding out the numbers, descriptions, and proper names and replacing them with more generic, accessible terms…or sometimes, not replacing them at all. If you communicate simply, the odds are greater that your audience will understand what you want to tell them. This can position your company as a thought leader – able to educate and explain and build a connection with those key audiences.

Often, the initial hurdle that needs to be overcome is the mistaken belief that jargon is universal. Just because you use a term regularly, and your entire team – even your entire company – understands it in the same way, doesn’t mean your clients or prospective customers do. Looking at your messages with a critical eye, weeding out technical terms, simplifying and paring down detail, and making sure that the target audience clearly understands how the product/program/service will benefit them, will make your communication more effective and more powerful.