Don’t Let Jargon Monoxide Poison Your School Communications, Part 2

How to Filter Out the Jargon and Improve Your School Public Relations

Parents clapping and looking happy

To be an effective educator, you must be a good communicator. To be a good communicator, you must break your messages down into their simplest form and change the way you talk about programs and educational systems. Let’s commit to replacing jargon with more relatable language and compelling, authentic stories.  (You can read Part 1 here.)

Identify Your Specific “Edu-Speak”

The first step to eliminating jargon is to identify what qualifies as your school communications “jargon.” One of the best ways to do this is to ask a parent.

Dahlia Lithwick, a parent and Ivy League-educated lawyer and journalist, described her fifth-grader’s back to school night in these words, “The evening passed in a blur of acronyms, test names, and emendations to last year’s system. Which I also didn’t understand. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I understood significantly less at this open house than I did at my sons’ open house during a sabbatical last year, when it took place overseas and in a foreign language.”

Gather a focus group of parents and ask about the terms and phrases the district and schools use frequently. See if they understand what you mean by those phrases and how they relate to district and school communications.

Another approach is to “test” your audience to see if your messages are clear. You can do this by creating a survey of some of your common topics and the words you use when describing or talking about programs. Ask your audience to define the terms. For example, you might ask “what does cooperative learning mean to you?” 

Dehlia also said, “I felt as if I were toggling between a business school seminar and the space program; acronyms alone—seemingly random sequences of letters like MAP and SOL and EAPE—were being deployed more frequently than actual words.”

Acronyms count as jargon too. In education, there are a lot of acronyms. Do parents know when you say, “stem” you mean “S.T.E.M.—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics?” By the time students reach high school, parents should be very familiar with S.T.EM. But depending on the educational background of a parent whose student is starting kindergarten, it may be the first time they’ve been exposed to S.T.E.M.

One tip is to include a list of common acronyms and other definitions on back-to-school night to help orient parents to the language of your district. Give these acronyms and definitions a home on your school website so parents and the community can easily look up a reference they may not understand.

Be Clear and Define Terms

One of my favorite movies is The Princess Bride. In the movie, one of the characters, Vizzini, uses the word “inconceivable” several times (five to be exact). After one exclamation, another character says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” 

Clarify your message by making sure your audience knows what you mean.  

According to Kathy Klotz-Guest, “Clarity is the communicator’s burden, and busy people won’t take the time to decode your message. They shouldn’t have to.”

This means that you can’t make assumptions when you communicate. Don’t assume your audience knows what you mean when you talk about “21st-century skills” or “growth mindsets.” It’s on you to define those words and phrases. If you want to talk about social-emotional learning, within the first few seconds, you should offer a definition. 

William Taylor, co-founder of Fast Company magazine, offers this advice when it comes to replacing jargon: “Words matter—in business and in life. I’ve always found that companies that aspire to do extraordinary things, leaders who aim to challenge the limits of what’s possible in their fields… offer rich and vivid descriptions of what they hope to do, where they hope to get, and why it matters.” 

What do you hope your program will do? What exactly will the students learn? Why is it important? Use language that is relatable, engaging, approachable, and personal. 

A word of caution: When providing clarity, be sure not to belittle your audience by telling them you’re going to provide clarity. I recently heard a story of a district leader who sent out a memo to parents letting them know she was going to translate a new district policy into “mom language.” Remember, the only reason they don’t understand edu-speak is because they are outsiders to your profession. Your parents may be doctors, lawyers, or educators themselves, but it does not exempt them from being able to understand educational jargon. What the district leader meant, and what she should have said, was, “We’re going to cut through our own jargon to make this more understandable.”

Make Your Message Accessible 

While we’re giving jargon the ax, it won’t hurt to simplify all our vocabulary. 

I came home from babysitting one day and said to my husband, “I am not watching that kid again. He was absolutely incorrigible!” 

My husband laughed and said, “What does that mean?”

“Oh,” I said, “you know, he was really naughty!” The dictionary definition is “persistently bad” but he got the idea.

I love words! My husband is a math-guy. We frequently do this back and forth where I’ll drop a ten-dollar word and then need to go back and give him a definition. He doesn’t mind it because he learns new words; I don’t mind it because it makes me think about my everyday vernacular. 

I know I’m not alone in my love of ten-dollar words; however, it is important to consider your audience. If you are talking to a room of teachers and other educators—go ahead and use those sesquipedalian words! But when you’re speaking to parents and the community, never use a ten-dollar word when a one-dollar word will suffice.

According to Kathy, “Big words may sound important; they’re not. Real experts know how to make the complex simple. …You’re not dumbing down your message; rather, you are making it more accessible to more people when you speak plainly to busy people.” 

Improve Your School Public Relations With Good School Communications

Remember the superintendent who suffered from the curse of the expert in Part 1? As soon as we realized that the community was struggling with her messages, we encouraged their communication coordinator to work helping to break down the district jargon. 

In speaking with this district recently, we learned that the communication coordinator is “able to interpret school jargon and help the decision-makers better talk so the public will understand.” As she sits with the administration, the communications coordinator will say things like, “Now, what do you mean by that?” Or, “Do I understand this correctly?” She then takes what she learns from the administrators and turns it into something everyone in the community can understand for the website and district newsletter. 

Having this outsider’s ear to help the district identify their specific jargon is helping to improve their public relations by making their school communications more accessible. 

When you understand what your audience may struggle to understand in your message, and when you take the time to be clear and deliberate in your language, you will build trust and credibility with your audience. 

Katie Brooks, School Public Relations Manager