Jargon is your Friend, but only Sometimes

Jargon is okay-ish

Using jargon is fine if you can be 100% sure that your audience will understand everything you write. In fact, it can be a very positive thing. Consider a surgeon about to operate on a dangerously ill patient. If they had to explain every term to their surgical team, the result for the patient could be dire.

Where professionals get themselves into trouble (I’m looking at you, medical specialists) is when they take this jargon and use it with the general public. Mx Average probably wouldn’t know their superior vena cava if it stood up in their porridge. They’d be surprised, of course, but couldn’t tell you why it was needed in their heart.

So, it’s up to you to take the information you want to convey and think about how to share this with your reader. What will they understand? What they might already know? And what they have no hope in hell of grasping without at least some explanation?

The simplest way to do this is to consider a couple of examples.

Example 1

Experiments show that Heliconius butterflies are less likely to ovipost on host plants that possess eggs or egg-like structures. These egg mimics are an unambiguous example of a plant trait evolved in response to a host-restricted group of insect herbivores.

Example 2

Heliconius butterflies lay their eggs on Passiflora vines. As a defence, the vines have evolved egg-like structures that make it look to the butterflies as if eggs have already been laid on them.

Example 3

The Long-wing butterfly lays its eggs on Passionfruit vines, so that the larvae have leaves to eat when they hatch. But the passionfruit plants have developed a way to stop all their leaves from being eaten. They have patterns on the leaves that look like eggs, so when the butterflies come to lay their eggs, it looks like eggs have already been laid on these leaves and they choose another plant.

Who the is the audience for each of these examples?

In example 1, the audience is probably academics. We know this because the text uses formal language, technical terms and gives no explanations. It is assumed that the reader comes to the text with a significant amount of knowledge already. Here’s the link to the original academic article, if you’re interested.

In example 2, whilst there are some technical terms used, there is still little explanation. It is assumed that the reader has some knowledge of the subject. My guess would be that this reader would be a Year 12 biology student.

By the time we get to example 3, it’s clear that the audience is probably Year 7 science students or the general public. We know this because no technical terms are used, the text is longer and explanations  of concepts are given. There is no assumption of prior knowledge.

Audience is king

So, when you start creating a document that ISN’T for your peers, consider how someone who has no knowledge of the topic would approach it. If you presented them with example 1, they’d either want to run away and hide or think you’re a bit ‘stuck up’ (to use the politest term I could think of).  Don’t be ‘stuck up’. Consider what your reader already knows, what they want to know and how to explain things to them that are patently obvious to you…after all, you’ve probably had years in the industry and they’ve had none.

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