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Why We Fight (Against Jargon)

We’re all familiar with the expression “fighting words,” but even I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of the verbal exchange that occurred when Communications Network contributor Susan Herr, and producer of our ongoing series of video chats, sat down to talk with our much-loved anti-jargon campaigner, Tony Proscio.

Admittedly it was a smart interview technique, and her tongue appears early on in the video to be planted somewhat firmly against her cheek. But if you’re not listening carefully, or you get momentarily distracted when she says it, you might miss the disclaimer that this was done all in good fun.

Still, in good fun or not, in all the years I’ve known Proscio, and have had the pleasure of seeing him eviscerate the use of muddy, obscure and downright silly phrases in writing and speaking about foundation and nonprofit work, I’ve never seen him asked to argue his point against someone claiming that jargon can be useful.

If you watch the video, I think you’ll agree that he succeeds in making a mockery of Herr’s mocking arguments.

And what do our two veterans of the video combat have to say about their experiences?

Here’s Tony:

When Susan asked me if I’d be willing to join her in a diavlog on the merits of jargon, I was pretty sure I’d heard every defense of philanthropic techno-speak there was. I’d heard “there simply is no substitute for capacity!” I’d heard “jargon is the only way to keep things brief!” I’d heard “I don’t have time to spend hours thinking up clever new expressions!”

But I have to admit, Susan hit me with a new one. It’s around 19:00 in the video, and it opens the jargon debate to whole new panoramas of psychoanalysis. (Hint: it has to do with the tingly feeling that goes up your leg every time you hear yourself say infrastructure.) Until this conversation, I never realized that low self-esteem was such a problem in our business. How did I miss this? 

Seriously, this was a fun conversation, highly unlikely to send you back to your analyst’s sofa. It might — I’m not promising anything, just maybe-could-possibly-might — take some of the thrill out of the sound of metrics as it rolls dulcetly off your tongue. And if so, … well I’ll call it a good day’s work. 

(And for those of you who are about to flame poor Bruce — or worse, flame me — for allowing a salacious reference to tingly legs on this family-type blog, calm down. It’s just an innocent paraphrase from Chris Matthews. Honest.)

And from Susan, comes this contrite response:

As one simultaneously enchanted with new media and creative language, I’m perhaps more susceptible than most to the sins of “jargon.”  But Father Tony’s gentle guidance helped me see the error of my ways.  Now I know my quest to communicate the wonder of God’s world must include short words. Boring words too.

Like I said, I think this video succeeds in helping us continue to make the case we need to be diligent in our jargon-reducing efforts — which is why we also invite you to check out our jargon finder. Yet, if for some reason you suddenly begin musing aloud that jargon is good, let us know so we can yank this video asap.

Now…if you have the capacity for it, go to the video.

–Bruce Trachtenberg


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