I just love Big Think’s YouTube channel, and I especially love when they talk to actor/writer Alan Alda, who is a personal favorite of mine. So I was especially pleased to watch his brief video on good communication and jargon, which you can find below.
Other than the fact that Alan is just a wonderful storyteller, I found a lot to think about from his discussion of the importance and also the drawbacks of jargon, especially for people in very niche and specialized fields.
Alda knows that jargon can be both a tool of precision and a weapon of confusion, and it’s definitely something worth talking about in certain circles, like academia and the professional world. He uses the world of cinema as his touchstone example, and I would probably use library science, as that is my specific personal field. It’s a very easily adaptable scenario.
I know that if I said to someone with very little to no knowledge of how a library works, “Check the bands on the books on the trucks for either ILLiad or MOBIUS and MERLIN symbols and make the appropriate stacks for check-in,” they’d probably have no idea what I’m talking about.
If I instead said, “look at the paper slips on these returned books and sort them out by the different types we have – one for interlibrary loan, one for the books in the University of Missouri system, or MERLIN, and one for the Missouri state library lending group, or MOBIUS,” they’d hopefully have a better time.
I know that my field of library science loves jargon and acronyms and such terms, but a good librarian knows when to stay concise and speak within the vocabulary of their studies and when to break it down and connect the listener to the concepts in a clearer way. It is something I try to be mindful of as I continue in my graduate studies: not everyone who walks through the library has the same word bank as myself, but they can understand what the ideas are, if I can take the time to explain them.
I appreciate plain speak as much as Alda does, and I also appreciate ‘jargon’ and field-specific lingo, and I know both kind of speech have their own appropriate uses and audiences. The story of the doctor and the medical surgeon in this video is a very good example of knowing when to talk ‘smart’ and when to talk ‘simple’.
The key here is to recognize when and where to switch between these two modes of talking. And, as Alda points out, if we can learn more about the jargon we use when we’re translating it into plain language, than that’s even better.