Rachel Skybetter
Senior Copywriter

Say it like you mean it

How to bust jargon once and for all

How do you talk about your organization without being weighed down by jargon?

For many, the default option is clichéd, overused language that can say a lot without saying anything at all. Jargon, inside baseball, lingo, buzzwords. Whatever you call them, these confusing terms can bog your messages down and make your cause forgettable.

That’s exactly what the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning wanted to prevent—before they even had a single student.

The WW Academy, an initiative of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, is a new, revolutionary teacher preparation program that turns the traditional way teachers learn upside down. With a focus on individual student needs and outcomes instead of traditional measures, the Academy is hoping to prepare teachers for the future of education—one that is constantly adapting and changing. Their very first class of design fellows begins this fall.

When we first met the team, a challenge immediately arose: how do we describe what they do—and how they do it—to prospective students and partners without relying on a tired vocabulary that only scratches the surface of this amazing new initiative? There’s no one quite like them in the educational space so they require a new kind of messaging to make sure the WW Academy difference is known.

One core team member said of a particularly hard-to-communicate term, “We’ve struggled to find a way to communicate about competency-based education. We want to convey—without jargon—that this is a program that meets you and pinpoints what you need to learn, tailors your education between what you know and what you need to know, then gives you the clinical experience to back that up.”

We knew right away we had a special opportunity to help the WW Academy team share their message clearly, concisely, and energetically. Beginning with our initial meeting, we thoughtfully worked around jargon throughout our engagement, culminating in a “use this, not that” spread in their brand guide—a tool used to consistently navigate the look, feel, and voice of their young brand.

So how do you get to the good stuff sooner? Here’s how Lipman Hearne and the WW Academy team did it:

  1. Admit there’s a problem—and talk it out
    If you find you and your team relying on terms that don’t actually mean much, call yourselves out. Bring it up in a meeting. Work together to identify the recurring phrases that you say all the time, that don’t say much of anything at all.
  2. Use your words
    Break it down into lay-terms. Often, this is the simplest way to get to your point. Challenge your team to explore the real meaning behind what they’re saying and what they want audiences to take away from it. It’s not easy, but the end result is almost always better. Once you and your team feel comfortable expressing an idea in a new way, amplify the energy with qualifiers and descriptors—but be careful not to distract from the real meaning.
  3. Consult the thesaurus
    Substituting a word or phrase with a synonym doesn’t fix the problem, but it can often trigger new ways of thinking or visualizing the phrase.
  4. Confront it head-on
    Target jargon by putting together a team-approved cheat sheet providing recommendations. Put it in your brand guide or just next to your desk—either way, use it. Refer to it when composing emails, Tweets, or recruitment materials until it becomes second nature. Soon, you’ll have created a custom vocabulary for your organization.

Jargon is hard to avoid—we do it too!—but being aware of it can help you correct the problem, be more mindful of your message, and communicate effectively. Next time you catch yourself getting tangled up in it, try stopping and rephrasing. You just might surprise yourself.