Don’t Let Jargon Monoxide Poison Your School Communications, Part 1

How Edu-speak May Be Killing Your Message

Parents looking confused and frustrated

Hockey has been my favorite sport since I turned eleven years old. Unfortunately, it’s not terribly popular here in my desert state of Arizona. So, if I start talking about breakaways, five-holes, slapshots, and dropping the gloves to the uninitiated, eyes glaze over, and I can tell what I said didn’t make sense.

The same thing often happens when I start talking about communications. I get excited and start tossing around words like strategic communications, public relations, target audiences, SWOT analysis, and marketing. Sometimes I’m met with nodding heads of understanding (because they’ve heard many of those words before), but it’s usually accompanied with a furrowed brow, and I can tell I’ve caused a little confusion. 

Vacant expressions, glazed eyes, confusion—these are all classic side effects of “jargon monoxide” poisoning. 

“Jargon monoxide” is a brilliant term popularized by Kathy Klotz-Guest to explain the effects jargon has on communication. Just like carbon monoxide can poison the air we breathe, jargon monoxide poisons our messages. 

By definition, jargon is special words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand. I dedicated six years to earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mass communications, and all that “mass comm” jargon is like a second language to me. 

As academics and education professionals, there are terms and phrases that you use on a daily basis to which you possess a much deeper understanding than others outside educational circles. 

Why does this matter? In Kathy’s words, “[Jargon] hurts you and your credibility because it pollutes your message and dilutes any chance for clarity and differentiation you have.” 

The Harmful Effects of Jargon Monoxide

As educational professionals, many of you are also long-time academics. Because of your background, you may not even realize when you use words and phrases that are beyond your audience. Even when your audience members are highly educated, using jargon can hurt not only your message but your reputation as well. 

One journalist who has been covering education for over 25 years labeled educational jargon “Edu-speak.” She explains that edu-speak “often wind[s] up sowing confusion or rendering important ideas incomprehensible.”

Here is a real-life example of what I’m talking about. A certain district I frequently work with has a wonderful superintendent. The superintendent is very intelligent, highly qualified, and cares deeply for the students, teachers, and staff in her district. 

An example of something she might say at a board of education meeting is, “[We focus on] learning that produces cultural proficiency, global awareness, higher order, and rigorous thinking… Students will achieve social-emotional learning via dynamics of 3D design, earning them their digital citizenship.” 

Maybe you’re already familiar with a lot of those terms. But for people like me and the parents in your community—cultural proficiency, global awareness, digital citizenship, social-emotional learning—those phrases don’t mean anything.  

Sure, we can figure that digital means technology, and citizenship means being a member of a community. So “digital citizenship” must mean that students are going to learn how to use technology to be responsible members of society. But the truth is, very few members of your audience are going to let their brains think that deeply on one phrase. Instead, they will gloss over it and miss your point. That’s the best case scenario. The worst is that using terms your audience doesn’t understand will make your audience feel stupid. As humans, we don’t like to be wrong, and we don’t want to feel stupid. When we are made to feel like we don’t understand, we disengage, become frustrated, and sometimes even get angry.

Back to our real-life example: A letter to the editor in the local paper brought the issue of the superintendent’s jargon monoxide effect to our attention. The community member wrote, “These phrases are smokescreen double-talk no one can understand. [The superintendent’s] unintelligible words seem to me like a tool to diminish others; namely, parents and taxpayers.” 

Don’t Be Defensive—Be Willing To Change

The author of the letter to the editor was clearly frustrated and angry. I’ll be honest, when I first read that letter to the editor, I was offended on behalf of the superintendent. She would never “double-talk!” Nothing she says is a “smokescreen!” Then I got it. The author said, “unintelligible words.” That is the key. The community member felt talked down to because the superintendent was using jargon! 

Recognizing and reacting to jargon requires the know-how to step back and analyze your communications. It means making a change in how you present your information to your audiences in order to boost clarity. 

Often, by using jargon we are attempting to establish ourselves as experts and develop a trust with the audience. But the effect is opposite. Yes, we appear to be experts because we “sound like we know what we’re talking about.” But in the end, jargon erodes trust, as you can see from the above example.

Jargon erodes trust because it excludes “outsiders.” The author of the letter to the editor felt like the superintendent was diminishing the parents and taxpayers of the community by talking “above” them. In other words, she felt stupid.

The author let us know what communication was important to her as she continued her letter asking, “Where is the joy of learning for our students expressed? Where is the student’s responsibility to family, community and country encouraged? How are ethics, courtesy, kindness, and thoughtfulness explored and developed with our students?”

Little did she realize the superintendent was talking about those things. However, the language the superintendent used caused confusion in her message. When we are experts in something, other people don’t know what we’re talking about. This is sometimes called, “the curse of the expert.” And in school communications, if we don’t clarify our messages, we run the risk of being misunderstood and alienating our stakeholders. 

In the next blog, we’ll look at how to avoid the curse of the expert and give you some easy-to-follow steps to filter out that deadly jargon monoxide.

Katie Brooks, School Public Relations Manager