Bruce Watson has reported for consumer-facing global publications for 12 years. His reporting highlights include the Guardian, Esquire (and others); these days, he heads the branded content team for Chase Bank. In this four-question (two-part series) interview, Watson tells us why we ought to remove more jargon, how to take this step, and that companies have great stories to tell.
When I read business messages, especially messages from marketers or leaders, writers often employ too much jargon and fluff. Do you see this pattern, and if so, why do you think many smart people write this way?
I find that many writers use jargon and fluff to distance themselves and to create a superior position over their readers. By creating confusion, they put the reader in a position of dependence, in which he or she has to ask for clarity or pause to look something up. At the same time, by putting the writer on a pedestal, jargon can make them seem less vulnerable. That step becomes a big mistake: readers find vulnerability attractive. After all, who do you root for—the big, monstrous football player or the scrawny kid covered in football pads, facing him down?
By creating distance, meaningless words can also let writers avoid problems, instead of tackling them directly. In contrast, if you want to tackle a problem, approach it clearly. The recent message from Contently’s CEO illustrates. After users expressed outrage about Contently’s plans to charge freelancers a transaction fee, he didn’t couch his response in jargon and corporate-speak. Instead, he released a clear, direct message, explaining that he had misunderstood his users and promising to abolish the fee. That straightforward apology defused the problem—Contently appeared responsive and respectful toward its users. If I was a freelancer, I would feel heard and valued—and I would stick with Contently.
Having written for you at the Guardian and Chase Bank, I know you insist your writers remove all jargon, but also remain concise, engaging, and specific.
I’m a George Orwell junkie, and I’m constantly inspired by the way he uses simple language to express incredibly complex ideas. I first read 1984 at aged 10. While I struggled with concepts he introduced, I understood every word—and those clear words made the concepts more approachable. That’s how our written messages ought to read: we should use language simple enough for a 10-year-old to understand, even if expressing far more complex ideas.
Jargon, incidentally, directly works against this process. It uses difficult language to explain easy-to-grasp concepts. By doing this, it makes readers work harder than they need to.
Can you describe your process? What tests do you apply to the work to ensure no jargon lingers?
In terms of my process, when I started writing on finance and business, I encountered multiple terms I didn’t understand. And then, as I researched them, I discovered many experts using the terms didn’t understand them either. For that matter, I soon realized that translating each jargon term into standard English only added a couple of words. In the end, writing clearly made my pieces slightly longer, but also saved my reader’s time by remaining clear.
Varying my sentence length and catching the internal rhythm of how a story goes helps me, too. A story should have a flow, a feel. You want to avoid awkward or unclear sentences that interrupt that rhythm. On the flip side, a beautiful piece of prose can pleasantly interrupt the rhythm. To catch these little hiccups, I like to read my work several times, noting anything that takes me off topic.
Having someone with no understanding of my topic read my work ensures that it remains clear and elegant. If I find no outside reader, I adopt the mindset of someone new to the topic, but still curious and smart. Thinking of that person—possibly a friend or relative—reminds me to not condescend, and cut out unfamiliar terms or jargon. After all, if they stop reading to look something up or ask a question, they’ll lose the rhythm of the piece. I want to flatter them by honoring their intelligence vs. making them feel ignorant.