Last month, I was watching with amusement the breathless coverage leading up to President Biden’s first address to Congress since he entered office. In between thrilling shots of the motorcade parked outside the Capitol, a reporter on location was outlining the President’s speechwriting process. An absolute no-no, he reported, was the use of acronyms. The President implored his team that if they could read the speech to each of their mothers and she understood the text, then it was golden.
I’ve been thinking about acronyms and jargon a lot lately. As a new employee of Cision, I’m being introduced to a lot of unfamiliar terms and acronyms. Depending on the scenario, sometimes I can interrupt and ask questions, but if I’m in a large meeting, that’s not really possible. In those situations, I will frantically search for information on my own later.
We’re all guilty of insider talk to some extent. Whether it’s an inside joke among friends or family, using corporate-speak with our colleagues or writing to a loyal audience, we tend to think those around us always “get” what we’re talking about. But how is a new friend, coworker or reader supposed to feel included if he or she doesn’t speak the secret language?
Another way to look at it is this: as a communications professional, you always want to attract more customers. The best way to keep readers coming back is to make them feel like you are speaking directly to them. But if they don’t know WTH you’re talking about, they’ll get frustrated and likely not return to read any future content you create. You don’t want that.
To help you avoid a jargon-filled, acronym-riddled rut, I have three tips to consider when writing your next piece.
Picture an Unexpected Reader
When writing a press release, it’s hard not to think about the readers who will eventually lay their eyes on it. Think about the last piece you wrote. Did you envision it being read by the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? A well-educated executive at a tech startup? Chances are you might be picturing an aspirational, ideal reader, and it’s influencing how you write. That’s when you start injecting fancy words or industry jargon to show that you’re “in the know.”
While you should write in a way that is palatable for your intended audience, you shouldn’t do it in a way that feels exclusionary to an outside audience. Try this experiment: picture your ideal reader. He or she can be a real person or imaginary. Think about this person’s name, age, gender, job title and location. Once you have that person in mind, imagine someone who is your ideal reader’s exact opposite in every demographic you chose.
While it might be challenging to write for a reader whose background and experience are different from your intended audience, keep in mind that the best content is clear and easy to read. Perhaps you can imagine a younger version of yourself and determine if the less experienced you would be able to understand the message you’re trying to convey.
Implement a Friends & Family Plan
If you find yourself struggling with the first strategy, let me steal from President Biden for my second suggestion. If you gave your piece of content to your mother (or anyone in your life who doesn’t work in the same industry as you), would she be able to understand what you’re saying?
My advice is to find a generous friend or family member who is willing to read your work and relay anything they don’t understand or find confusing. When we’re immersed in one industry throughout our careers, we can forget that not everyone has the same understanding of it as us. As much as we don’t want to admit it, this is more likely to happen as we mature in our careers. That’s why it’s so important to rely on “outsiders” who can let us know if we’ve gone too far in the weeds.
When you give this kind person a piece you’ve written, ask them to describe its over-arching message (no leading questions!). Hopefully, you’re both on the same page, but if not, you have some work to do. Also, ask if they found any words or sentences in particular confusing or unclear. It’s possible that your overall message is easy to understand but some of the details are not.
Learn From the Best
We’ve all read articles about topics we might have found mystifying at first. Think: how mRNA vaccines work or what on earth an NFT is. A good writer will take a complex topic and break it down into digestible bites of information that will help you better understand the topic’s “what” and “why.” These are the writers you want to emulate.
So, my last piece of advice is to reread content that helped you better understand a complex subject. (To avoid accidentally plagiarizing another author, I advise you not to read content on the particular subject you’re writing about.) When reading this content, ask yourself what you liked most about how it was written. How did it help you understand a subject that either previously confused you or that you had no knowledge of before? My guess is the writer didn’t use a lot of jargon and thoroughly explained the meaning of any acronyms.
The fear some writers have is that if they use clear, simple language, it will make them appear uneducated on the topic, as if they are “learning” the information along with their audience. On the contrary, dear writer. The ability to explain something complex using uncomplicated, straightforward language is the sign of a strong writer.
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