The Curse of Knowledge: You’re Using Jargon and You Don’t Even Know It

Jargon (noun): Special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand.

The English language is filled with shorthand. It’s an especially difficult language to learn because the way native speakers communicate is often colloquial. It can seem like a completely different language and a far departure from the technical. It’s even more varied by region, which doesn’t simplify things.

How is your nonprofit using language in your messaging? Some of us use slang in our messaging. Some of us use academic or pop culture references. Then there’s jargon. Jargon is the most egregious form of messaging because no one outside your nonprofit understands it—and every industry has it. If you’re a communicator, you’re responsible for knowing all the ins and outs of your nonprofit. You know your mission, resources, and services like the back of your hand. And that includes your nonprofit’s shorthand, it’s jargon. It’s likely that you’ve been steeped in your nonprofit’s jargon for so long that you don’t even notice it!


It’s not just words

There are probably just as many facts, numbers, acronyms, and pieces of general information that are widely understood by you and your colleagues that don’t make any sense to your audiences. That’s what we call the “Curse of Knowledge”. It’s a cognitive bias in which you unknowingly assume that your audiences have the same background or interests as you do. The worst part about it is that, when you know something your audiences don’t, you’re unlikely to be able to retrospectively bridge the gap.


The two extremes

As writers and publishers, we’re often left with two extremes on a spectrum. On one side, you write to the person who knows nothing about your nonprofit. In this case, you spell everything out and fully define terms so that they can be used freely from that point on. It’s the type of writing that everyone can read and understand.

On the other side of the spectrum, you write like your readers understand everything that you do. It might appear more stylish or may feel like what you have to say carries more gravitas. That is to say, you can expound on whatever you want using whatever language you want.

Here’s the cold, hard, truth: Your audiences don’t think about you even a fraction as much as you think about you. After all, you’re thinking about your organization at least 40 hours every week, right?

One of the consequences of this fact is that we often place value on things that aren’t valuable to our audiences. So, if those two extremes exist, it makes sense to write towards those that don’t know you well because you don’t lose anyone in that process. Sure, you may sacrifice some panache, but that’s small harm compared to what you gain: understanding and comprehension (and loyal fans, donations, newsletter sign-ups…).


Be descriptive

When we talk with clients about writing effective web copy, some worry that if they write too descriptively and comprehensively, their users are going to feel like they’re being condescended to. To that, we have a simple rebuttal: Have you experienced that as a user? Have you ever read something descriptive and felt belittled? Your readers likely aren’t going to take offense to descriptive writing, especially if the content isn’t made for them individually. It’s also important to note that this is very contextual. You don’t have to spell out everything in every single piece of content you write. Really, it just depends on the intended audience. For example, the copy on your homepage may be more descriptive than a specific page or resource three or four levels into your website. You don’t always have to be so comprehensive—just when it’s appropriate.

Learn how to write memorable web copy.


How to identify (and avoid) jargon

In some cases, jargon is obvious. Take a mechanic, as an example. They wouldn’t expect every customer to know every part that makes up a car, so they wouldn’t communicate as if they do. But, for many of us, jargon is covert.

One good way to identify your internal jargon is to make it external—have someone outside of your organization read something you write. Make sure this person is not especially familiar with your nonprofit —we often recommend a neighbor. After you do that a few times, you may discover some of the gaps you need to fill that you never would have realized otherwise. You may even go as far as to perform audience research. Something similar to usability testing, but maybe more along the lines of “comprehension testing.” That research can take many forms, but the ultimate goal is to find out how to communicate more effectively.

Tackling this issue internally takes self-awareness and a certain consciousness about both your writing and your nonprofit’s messaging. With enough effort over time, you’ll break the dreaded Curse of Knowledge.