How to avoid jargon and acronyms in your business writing

What is jargon?

Before I slip into my own trap, let me explain what jargon is. Jargon is specific or technical language. It is often used by a particular group of people and can make things difficult to understand for those outside of that group.

Jargon certainly has its place. For instance, if a medical professional is talking to other medical professionals about a specific body part or condition, it would be sensible to use the proper terminology. However, they should leave out or at least explain the jargon in layman’s terms when talking to the patient.

What is an acronym?

An acronym is usually made up of the initial letters of something. Traditionally, an acronym makes a pronounceable word, such as NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), but is widely used to describe any abbreviation made up of initial letters, such as BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation).

Acronyms are a type of jargon, where those ‘in the know’ can communicate more succinctly about specific terms, projects and groups. TLAs (three-letter acronyms) are rife throughout all areas of business!

Just take a look at the Acronym Finder website to see the variety of terms people shorten into acronyms. At the time of writing this article, there are 145 listed for the acronym BBC.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes

Before writing, you need to ask yourself some questions. Who is your audience? What do they know before reading your document? What do you want them to know or do after reading your document?

If your audience has the specialist knowledge needed, by all means use technical jargon and acronyms. However, if your text is for a wider audience or the general public, don’t assume anything. Use succinct, plain language.

This means keeping sentences short and words simple. Avoid using unnecessary words to pad out sentences and don’t be afraid of being direct. If it’s helpful to use a term to describe something specific, make sure you explain it in plain words too. Using flowery language or ‘business speak’ can make it look like you’re hiding something.

Word’s own readability statistics can give you a general idea of how readable your text is. Broadly speaking, aim for an average sentence length of 15–20 words, a Flesch Reading Ease score of over 60% and a Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score of 8.0 or lower.

The Hemingway app is another free tool to help you identify where your language could be plainer.

If you are looking for a simpler word to use, Plain English Campaign’s A–Z of alternative words is a great resource.

None of these tools should be used on their own, nor should they be seen as the be all and end all. They are useful guides and should be considered within the context of your document, your purpose and your audience.

Explain acronyms

The first time you use an acronym, write it out in full with the acronym in brackets. You can then use the acronym alone in the rest of your document. If it’s a longer document that people might dip into rather than read cover to cover, you might want to spell acronyms out the first time they are mentioned in each chapter or section.

Make a list of your acronyms as you go along. Then, when you’re checking through your document at the end, you can use Word’s ‘Find’ function to make sure you’ve written out your acronym in full in the first instance. This is particularly helpful if you’ve been through a few edits and have moved things around.

If you have a lot of acronyms, a glossary or ‘jargon buster’ at the end can really help the reader.

Test it out

It’s so easy to slip into the jargon of our industries because we’re immersed in it every day – so much so that we don’t always recognise it in our own writing.

Get someone else to read through what you’ve written, as they will view it from a different perspective and might pick up on things that you’ve assumed are clear. Ideally, test it out on someone from your intended audience.

And finally …

Now you’ve followed these steps and written your easy-to-understand document, you can have some fun annoying your colleagues.

Plain English Campaign’s Gobbledygook generator comes up with wonderful, meaningless jargon that you can slip into your everyday office conversations. I’ve always thought we needed a more contemporary reimagining of our ambient administrative mobility …

Happy writing!