Speaking Jargon: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

My dad is brilliant. He’s also a bit OCD.

Visiting a two-room museum can take half a day with my dad. He has to get the audio guide, listen to every regular entry, AND push the button anytime he hears “to learn more …”

So it didn’t surprise me that Daddy read every word of every single piece of literature he was given about his open heart surgery last week. He read everything the doctors gave him, and he read everything he could find from reputable sources on the internet.

It did surprise me, however, to hear my father conversing with doctors, nurses, and medical staff in their language like a seasoned cast member of ER or Grey’s Anatomy.

“Do you talk to your clients about jargon?” he asked me during  a lull in medical activity.

“Of course, ” I said. “I tell them to avoid it. I advise them to use words that resonate with their audience.”

“But sometimes jargon IS the best way to communicate. It saves time and is more easily understood,” he said.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen. The communication lesson from my dad’s hospital stay: sometimes jargon is good.

I know it’s a shocking proposition. Much has been written about how terrible jargon is in public speaking. I’ve even written some myself.

But my eyes have been opened to the proper role of jargon by seeing how quickly and precisely my father communicated his condition, concerns, and needs with his medical staff.

Let’s talk about jargon then. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Good Jargon When Speaking

When you know your audience is composed entirely of people schooled in the exact same terminology, jargon and group-accepted shorthand is the most effective way to convey complex concepts swiftly and clearly.

With most audiences, the term “CABG” would conjure images of a green veggie. To medical professionals dealing with heart-related procedures, CABG is instantly recognizable as Coronary Artery Bypass Grafting.

A normal person learning medical terms to communicate more effectively with medical professionals is an example of “good” jargon.

But before you start peppering your speech with acronyms, make sure your audience will all be on the same language page.

Bad Jargon When Speaking

Bad jargon occurs when a speaker doesn’t stop to consider whether terms that are familiar and commonplace for him will be readily understood by the audience at hand.

A doctor using medical terms to communicate with a normal-person patient is an example of “bad” jargon.

Rarely is a doctor trying to confuse or condescend to a patient. But doctors (and folks from other jargon-filled industries) don’t always explain things in a way that anyone could understand.

To avoid the bad jargon trap, think through your presentation and identify any terms that may need to be explained to your audience. Once you’ve identified jargon, either

  1. Choose more commonly understood words,
  2. Define the term for the audience, or
  3. Use the term in a context that makes the meaning crystal clear

Ugly Jargon When Speaking

Using jargon to look smarter, prevent the audiences from asking questions, or  make people feel inferior is just plain ugly.

Effective communication is about building relationships and understanding, not about power-plays and indulging ego.

I’m going to assume that none of my lovely readers ever intentionally use jargon in these ways.

But just in case you occasionally find yourself tempted, think about why the use of jargon is appealing to you. If jargon is masking an insecurity as a speaker, tackle the insecurity instead.

You’ll be rewarded with a much more favorable audience response.

Using Jargon Effectively

You don’t have to throw all jargon out. Just be sure to use it thoughtfully, with the right audiences, and to achieve your speaking purpose.

And, judging from my dad’s experience, you may want to embrace medical terminology the next time you’re facing a serious procedure. Using hospital-speak can be the ticket to more efficient care.


Thanks to everyone who has sent kind thoughts, warm wishes, and prayers my dad’s way! They are very much appreciated.

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When do you think jargon is effective? Share your thoughts below!

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