OPINION: Cut the jargon if you want to communicate

GERALDINE PEACOCK, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

"Do you know what a GSD is?" my chairman asked of me after going through his papers before a recent council meeting. "No, neither do I," he went on. I had been all right with DTM (district team manager) and GDMI (guide dog mobility instructor), but GSD meant nothing to me out of context late on a Monday night.

I asked around and eventually found out the meaning from our vet. It was a mobility unit known to most of us as a German Shepherd Dog.

This episode showed me just how important plain English is in this world of acronyms, initials and jargon. It also showed me that it can help us all communicate if we try to learn a little of the jargon of the groups or professions we mix with. I'll be swotting up on my veterinary acronyms.

At the ensuing council meeting, we followed the issue up and it was clear that our trustees were often confused about some of the language and abbreviations we were using. It wasn't that we were speaking in tongues, but that we had lost sight of where everyday language stops and jargon begins. From now on, we'll be using plain language when possible and, when it isn't, we'll provide a glossary.

But, in many ways, jargon can be valuable and the use of shorthand, like acronyms, can help people within particular spheres of work to communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Jargon can draw people together through a mutual language.

But jargon shifts from help to hindrance when we forget what is and what is not jargon, or forget that we use it at all. Our sector abounds with jargon and when we use it in conversation with our clients or supporters, we risk not only placing barriers in the way of understanding, but setting that understanding back further. It is not just a case of using phrases which are meaningless out of context, but of sending out messages of exclusivity, aloofness and lack of consideration.

If we are to avoid these negative traits, we need to be constantly aware not just of what we want to communicate, but how we do it. We need to be conscious of the language we use with different audiences and we need to leave our egos at the door. We don't always need PROs to communicate our USPs, but we do need to clarify the verbalisation of our key stakeholder messages. Or use plain English.

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