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How to Use Jargon for Good, Not Evil, in Your Content and Marketing

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In content marketing and in journalism, the word jargon has come to be used mostly as an insult. It's a label that people put on unfamiliar language they dismiss as gibberish.

Jargon has another meaning, though, and it doesn't have an inherently negative connotation: the specialized vocabulary or language that a profession or group uses. Often riddled with industry-specific acronyms and colloquialisms, industry jargon is difficult for outsiders to understand.

Content marketers contemplating whether to use that sort of jargon need to note whether their target audience is general and broad, or specialized and narrow.

If you're targeting a general audience (say, you're writing a beer commercial), you should comply with conventional wisdom and avoid jargon. But if you're writing or speaking to a highly specialized group, as content developers are increasingly doing, you should consider embracing jargon.

Here are three things jargon can do for you

Don't avoid jargon reflexively; first consider the following three criteria for useful jargon that can help make your content more effective.

1. Using jargon (correctly) identifies you as an insider, a trustworthy peer of your target audience

Years ago, I wrote a blog post about prenups for chess players. If you don't play chess, you would probably be able to generally understand the post, but you wouldn't recognize the acronyms (ICC, FICS, OTB) or the significance of some references (Wijk aan Zee, Linares, blitz, and lightning chess). You almost certainly wouldn't find the post funny, and you might think it's stupid.

That's fine. It's not written for you, it's written for chess players. And judging by the comments below the post, they think it's a riot.

Now, if you use jargon incorrectly, it identifies you as an impostor, not an insider.

You can't use jargon to fake it. You have to do your homework. Do not use jargon that you don't understand thoroughly. (When I was writing for IT and information security audiences, I used to get an earful from readers whenever I got careless and misused a technical term.) But if you know the terms and you use them correctly, you can better connect with your audience: You're speaking their language.

2. Using jargon makes your communication more specific

For example, if you're writing about "machine learning," a hot topic in the business world, you might need to refer to its "deep learning" subset. Imagine you are writing about a specific computing system, and you have a choice between these two statements:

  • This system is designed to perform deep-learning tasks at a high level.
  • This system is designed to perform certain kinds of machine-learning tasks at a high level.

The first sentence is more specific than the second.

For a general audience, using the second might help you avoid introducing an unfamiliar term. But for a reader who is already knowledgeable about machine learning, it would be less informative.

If you consistently broaden and generalize statements to avoid jargon, you will struggle to provide value to the specialized audience you're addressing.

3. Using jargon helps you communicate more efficiently

Here's another example from the world of chess: I can tell you that I "created a defensive setup with a bishop tucked behind a triangle of pawns in front of my king over on one side of the board."

Or I can tell an audience of chess players that I "fianchettoed and castled." They will know what I mean—and I will have used three words instead of 25.

Again, it's all about the intended audience.

The most prevalent kind of jargon has the least value

Now that I've cheered the use of certain types of jargon, I'll point out one type to avoid at all costs, even though it's widely understood and accepted: general business jargon.

Example: "Users leverage our platform to drive optimized outcomes."

Do you mean, "People use our product to get better results"?

The first version is a weirdly stilted way of speaking. Each word has meaning, but when you string them together... the cumulative effect is that you sound like Robo-Marketer.

Is that how you talk to friends and neighbors? Unless you live in Silicon Valley, probably not.

Yet many people—marketers to high-level executives—really use this jargon in business settings. And although they might think that doing so helps identify them as trusted peers or insiders, it might well be having the opposite effect. It also doesn't improve specificity or efficiency.

So, by those three criteria, general business jargon is not good jargon. At a time where businesses are striving to be more authentic, killing such jargon would be a nice step.

So try going through a stack of your content and eliminating these four words:

  1. Leverage
  2. Drive
  3. Enable
  4. Outcomes

Doing so is a quick way to start sounding more human (and different from all your competitors).

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Derek Slater is content director at digital marketing agency Ready State, which brings an investigative approach to marketing. Derek uses his journalism experience to help clients get better results.

Twitter: @derekcslater

LinkedIn: Derek Slater

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  • by Chris Finnie Wed Feb 1, 2017 via web

    I completely agree. Because of your chess example, I'd like to add one thing. There are a few acronyms I use without hesitation as they are. Everybody but my mother knows what an IC is. If I'm certain nobody but engineers will read it, I'll even throw in API and a few other generally known ones. But so many acronyms have multiple, widely different meanings in various contexts, that I'm really cautious about using them without spelling them out first. After all, even API means "active pharmaceutical ingredient" in the drug business.

  • by Marc Ruel Wed Feb 1, 2017 via web

    Agreed, and great article. I write blogs for a B2B company in the construction industry. There is no way around learning the terms, acronyms, expressions, and concepts used in the target audience's workday. It's the only way you can make your content relevant to them. Yes, the result might seem "boring", "too complicated" or arcane to outsiders, but, as you mention, they're not the focus.

    A rule of thumb I try to use is to be as step-by-step logical and simple in technical explanations as I can so that even someone who isn't part of the target audience can follow along. That's because In B2B, that someone could be part of the purchase decision.

  • by Dan Hubscher Wed Feb 1, 2017 via web

    Finally. Someone gets it. Well said.

  • by Derek Slater Wed Feb 1, 2017 via web

    Great thoughts, thank you for sharing them.

    Chris - Love the API example. I was the editor at CSO which was Chief Security Officer for us, but the top search result was Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and an engineer told me an even better one from his world- "Combined Sewer Overflow."

    Marc - "There is no way around learning the terms, acronyms, expressions, and concepts used in the target audience's workday." - Bravo, I'm stealing that.

  • by Chris Goswami Fri Feb 3, 2017 via web

    Great clarification on one of the universal (but widely misunderstood) tenets of content marketing - thx!

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