The Perils of Jargon

Every industry has its own unique language.

Some of it is necessary – for example, the technical names for things that to an outsider sound like gobbledegook but make complete sense to everyone in that profession. I am not an engineer, so I don’t need to know what Bernoulli’s Principle* is or what it means. But to an engineer working in fluid dynamics, it is essential.

Some of it is helpful – it can be a kind of shorthand used within a profession or within a specific company that everyone within that group knows and understands. So, for example, at the communications agency that I co-founded in 2010 – we all know that a WIP document is a regularly updated document outlining current ‘Work In Progress’ which we use to track activity and to update our clients.

A lot of it however is deeply problematic – because it creates confusion rather than clarity.

First problem: when we take our technical language and use it when we are speaking to people outside of our profession: our clients, potential clients, and members of the public. For example, someone asks us what we do for a living and we launch into a technical explanation that nobody outside of our industry would actually understand. Or we are pitching an idea to a client and we wrap it up in complex language that the client is unlikely to know.

‘Seriously Bob, the ROI* on this campaign will be off the charts especially if we measure it by AVE*. I think we can guarantee above the fold* coverage…blah blah blah…”

Then there are the times when we simply abuse language. We use words in a way that defies common sense and credulity. Here are just 5 of my favourites from the PR profession:

    • Leverage: As in ‘We need to leverage this opportunity to drive home our key message….’ I once read an article about PR jargon in which the author said that hearing someone use this word out loud gave you ‘express permission to spit in their coffee when they’ve turned their back.’ I wouldn’t go that far but some gentle mocking is definitely in order.
    • Disruptor / Innovator / Challenger: Just because you are a new company doesn’t automatically make you a ‘challenger’. Similarly, not every ‘new idea’ is ‘innovative’ and sometimes ‘disruptive’ just means causing an unwelcome disruption.
    • Synergy: In my opinion, you should only be allowed to use a word – including this one – if you can accurately define it. I challenge anyone using the word ‘synergy’ in a PR context to do so.
    • Traction: Sadly we have allowed this word to gain traction in the profession (hehehe!) and now we can’t seem to banish it!
    • Low-hanging Fruit: Leaving aside the unpleasant visuals that swim into my mind whenever I hear this phrase (just me?) why not just say the ‘easy options’.

I am a words geek. One of the things that I love about words is that they are both very precise and very elastic. The common usage, definitions, and meanings of words evolve over time.  But, there is no version of the world in which every company claiming to be ‘world-leading’ actually is. No evidence to suggest that we are all as ‘delighted’ as we claim to be or as ‘groundbreaking’. And there is simply no evolution of our reality that will ever justify ‘circling back’.

So why do people insist on using this kind of meaningless jargon?


Sara Price
Sara Price
Sara has spent over 20 years in PR and lobbying working for some of the biggest brands in the world. Her focus now is on supporting visionaries to change the world through the power of great communications. Sara’s career began in the UK Parliament developing an in-depth understanding of the corridors of power. She then worked as a political advisor to UNICEF where she witnessed the power of individuals and organisations to effect global change. Sara sat on the UK Board of one of the world’s largest PR agencies, H&KStrategies, and in 2010 co-founded the award-winning independent communications agency: Pagefield. Over the course of her career, Sara has developed communications programmes for some of the most famous brands in the world from Kelloggs to Airbnb; she has advised organisations as diverse as Lunar Mission One and SheDecides; and created multi-national campaigns for Global Peace Ambassador Prem Rawat. Sara is also a coach, mentor, trainer and soon-to-be published author. Her vision is a world in which everyone with a big dream to make the world a better place feels inspired and empowered to do so. Sara’s enterprise, Actually, exists to fulfil this vision: offering training, advice and support to social entrepreneurs, charity leaders, campaigners and businesses with a social purpose enabling them to change the world.

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