#ukhousing jargon: what we can do about habitual horrors

“Some people love speaking in jargon, using fancy words and turning everything into acronyms. Personally, I find this simply slows things down, confuses people and causes them to lose interest. It’s far better to use a simple term and commonplace words that everyone will understand, rather than showing off and annoying your audience.”

Richard Branson on why we should ditch jargon

Nonsense I have an issue with jargon, and it’s not because I’m a pedant…

At its worst, it alienates those who we’re trying to reach and highlights a disconnect between us and the rest of the world.

It also makes no business sense, because it wastes the time of the person who is giving and receiving the information. Those are strong reasons to stop the ‘cut and paste’ approach that litters business correspondence and get back to basics.

Whilst the world of housing (particularly the bit in which I work) isn’t alone in having its own ‘special’ phrases, it’s clear that we have a problem when it comes to clearly explaining what we do. Ask anyone who joins the sector from another industry (as I did once). They’ll probably tell you much of their first few months were spent wondering what people are talking about in meetings and struggling to decipher emails.

If people who work with us feel like that, what does a small business or resident think when trying to find out about something like a new development in their community, for example?

There may be a case for using jargon sometimes; if the audience understands it, using specialist terms can be an efficient way to make a point. But context matters and dumping technical information into a note intended for someone who isn’t an expert bugs those who are on the receiving end.

And don’t even get me started on acronyms (another post for another day)! Our language is littered with them, ranging from the reasonable (HCA, DCLG) to the odd (LA for council) and plain daft (GCN? Great crested newts, or just newts!).

Sure, comms people with their ROIs, metrics, SOVs and other clever words have their own idiosyncrasies. But this should concern anyone who cares about whether people ‘get’ what we do.

Shared language  

So I was heartened recently when I asked people on social media to share with me some of the worst examples and found that I’m not alone in my dislike for its misuse.

I’ve set up a Storify thread which provides highlights shared by people on Twitter (with thanks to those who responded). I’m also working on a spreadsheet in Google docs which contains these examples and others, alongside some clear alternatives. This is work in progress and won’t be done this side of the election I’m afraid (so watch this space). Once I started, there was too much to go at along with everything else happening in my life. I hope to share this soon. If you have any more examples you’d like to share, please do so and let me know what your alternative would be.

In the meantime, there are some simple things housing comms people could do when confronted with phrases that don’t make sense.

#1. Ask what it means! If we don’t get it, why would anyone else? It’s fine to ‘play dumb’. If we’re simply taking what we’re given without asking the question, we’re acting like call handlers through whom information is passed to the outside world.

#2. Check what you’ve written: Get a colleague to read it for you. Use tools like Hemmingway (which I’ve tried for some documents) or Jargone (which you can bookmark in some browsers and use to highlight offending words on a web page you’re working on) to help with drafting. My first boss would urge me to print off what I was working on, make a cup of tea, sit down and read it properly before hitting send. It was good advice, which has stood the test of time.

#3. Challenge bad use: What would you rather be doing? Engaging stakeholders to benchmark the strategy for decanting residents into temporary units? Or talking to residents about how they should be moved into their new homes?

Have fun! And if you think the issue of misuse of English language is a modern day thing, read this from George Orwell in 1946. Picture credit.

8 thoughts on “#ukhousing jargon: what we can do about habitual horrors

  1. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but
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  2. Ben, I totally agree. Whenever we use jargon we risk not communicating whatever it is we want to say. Unless the objective is to deliberately confuse (and I sincerely hope that this doesn’t apply within our sector) we should aim to eliminate jargon altogether.

    1. Thanks Mark. I don’t think jargon is always intended to confuse, although that’s the result in many cases. If it is the aim, then we should certainly be against that!

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