10/23/2014 11:49 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Using Science to Eliminate Jargon, Before It Kills Your Message

Communications professionals working with policy wonks or other experts who speak in technical terms often struggle to translate wonky lingo into meaningful messages for non-experts.

To communicate with maximum motivating power, we must win the battle over jargon: Psychological research shows that jargon kills attention, comprehension, retention and motivation.

Our Jargon Kills! Tip Sheet can help you fight back. In it, you'll learn a bit about the science of effective message development, as well as practical tips for replacing jargon with language that is memorable and motivating.

We produced this brief jargon-busting guide in response to requests from participants in our Jargon Kills! workshop at the 2014 Communications Network conference. Doug Hattaway and senior research associate Eric Zimmermann coached communications pros from foundations and nonprofits in using insights from cognitive psychology and linguistics to translate jargon into meaningful messages.

The Hattaway team has worked with leaders in fields as varied as environmental science, public health, social justice and international security. It can be tough to convince those steeped in a specialist vocabulary that their jargon sounds much like a foreign language to the ears of non-experts.

You can use science to convince your colleagues of the importance of using familiar language. For example, "fluency theory" says that people are more likely to believe information that is easy to understand. Unfamiliar words disrupt language processing in the brain--and it makes people less likely to understand, remember or even believe new ideas and information.

Show subject-area experts that you can translate their jargon into plain English without losing its meaning. For example, few non-experts could readily understand this sentence: "Effective care for mother and baby reduces maternal mortality and intrapartum stillbirths, resulting in a triple return on investment."

Simply translating the medical and financial jargon into familiar words makes it comprehensible to just about everyone, while communicating the same idea: "Effective care for mother and baby saves mothers' lives, keeps babies alive during birth and saves three times as much money as it costs."

Translating jargon can take a little time, but it's critical. Ultimately, most of the audiences we need to reach in order to change attitudes or behavior--from policymakers and funders to members of the news media and general public--don't speak the language of the experts. We can't win their hearts, minds or trust if they don't understand what we're saying.

Witten by:

Doug Hattaway
Doug is President and CEO of Hattaway Communications, Inc., a strategic communications firm based in Washington, DC. He has served as a spokesperson and consultant to high-profile leaders in politics, government, business, advocacy and philanthropy.

Eric Zimmermann
Eric is a Senior Research Associate at Hattaway Communications. He has led message development efforts and provided communications consulting to political campaigns, foundations, advocacy organizations and government institutions around the world.