As a professional, it is important to communicate as simply and concisely as possible.

Uh-huh / Mm-hmm

At some point in life, we’ve all had a conversation with our doctor or mechanic (preferably not the same person) where a bunch of technical jargon is used to explain a medical or automotive condition. If you’re like me, you don’t understand but you nod and agree, feigning understanding because you don’t want to appear ignorant, but you really have no clue what they’re talking about. It’s not a good feeling.

Here’s another example: Ever tried to order a drink at Starbucks, only to be corrected by the surly teenager behind the counter for not using the proper Starbucks terminology? Makes you feel pretty small. Or in Starbucks speak, tall.

As a designer, the terms vector, flat, above the fold, and gamification (to name a few) may be commonplace. But to most people, these words carry either a different meaning or no meaning at all. These are industry specific terms, and when you use them while talking to anyone who doesn’t do what you do, you may lose them completely.

As a professional in any field, it’s easy to talk over people’s heads, especially when you spend all day conversing with colleagues or peers in similar fields who share the same knowledge base. You forget that other people don’t know the same stuff you do. It’s easy to forget that when you started, you knew nothing. Just because you know something doesn’t mean it’s common knowledge. That’s where I fail a lot of the time. I don’t consider myself exceptionally knowledgeable about anything. So I figure if I know it, everyone must know it. But that’s not the case. Most times, when we talk over people’s heads, the objective isn’t to lord our knowledge or expertise over them. We just make incorrect assumptions about their level of understanding. At some point, the barista at Starbucks was just a newbie who didn’t know the lingo. Honestly, that punk kid probably isn’t trying to belittle you. They’ve just forgotten that at one point, they didn’t know the weird names for drink sizes, either.

Why does this matter?

When you use technical terms your clients/customers don’t understand, you alienate them. Speaking in jargon can make people feel stupid, and can come off as condescending. By communicating simply and clearly, you project yourself as knowledgeable and accessible.

When you talk over people’s heads, you run the risk of misinterpretation. This can lead to misunderstandings. You don’t want to find yourself in a tight spot with a client due to poor communication and false expectations. By sharing a common vocabulary, you can communicate more effectively and protect yourself against misunderstandings that can cripple your process.

When you speak in jargon, you not only do a disservice to your audience, but also to yourself. When you limit your vocabulary, you limit your understanding. By using common terminology to explain the concepts you are trying to convey, it further solidifies those ideas and information in your mind.

Avoid jargon at all cost

Tips for communicating effectively

Speak in terms that anyone can understand

Basically, this just means avoiding the use of jargon. Sure, it might be easier to describe a website as responsive, but the average person isn’t familiar with that term. Better to explain that the site will automatically resize based on the size of the screen.

Don’t talk down to people

It’s important to remember that the goal is to speak to the lowest common denominator, not treat people like they’re stupid. I once read an article on this subject, geared towards doctors, which suggested that they talk to their patients as if they were sixth-graders. Now I don’t know all the ins and outs of the medical professional, but that didn’t sit right with me. It is possible to explain a complicated idea to someone without treating them like a child.

Use examples or analogies when you can

One of the best ways to convey new concepts (especially complex ones) is to show them in use. By using examples, you transform something abstract into something more tangible. Even without visuals, any explanation can be strengthened using real life scenarios. In the same way, likening a new idea to something people are familiar with helps them to grasp it more easily. Be careful, though, as using a bad analogy can actually work against you, giving people the wrong idea and causing misunderstanding.

Decide on a list of vocabulary

In his book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum, Alan Cooper suggests that before the start of any project, a list of vocabulary should be created to ensure everyone is on the same page regarding terminology. This helps avoid misunderstandings during the course of the project. It’s a good practice, even for professionals with similar knowledge bases.

In Summary

It’s important to keep in mind that not everyone knows all the same stuff you do. It can be hard, living in the information age, not to make assumptions about people’s level of understanding. Remember that you didn’t always know what you know now.

Speaking in layman’s terms helps you to communicate better with your clients and anyone, really, who isn’t in the same profession as you. Good communication is key to professionalism; it establishes you as being knowledgeable and accessible, safeguards against misunderstandings that can lead to conflict, and raises your level of expertise.

At its core, communication is the exchange of information, and it’s a lot easier when we all speak the same language.