When to use jargon in your presentations

Lots of what you hear about better presentations is just Bad Advice
There’s some really bad advice about presentations out there!

Jargon has a bad press – and in very many ways thats for good reason. We’re constantly told not to use jargon in our presentations but that’s simplistic advice from trainers trying to sound good with cool-sounding-tips. BadVice alert!

Let’s look at what jargon actually does first, before we give it a blanket ban in our presentations…

Two functions for jargon in presentations

To be crude about it, there are two reasons for using jargon, the one we think we’re using it for and the more subtle one most of us actually use it for. For simplicity I’m going to call these options “speed” and “exclusivity”.

Speed – and things related to speed such as how easy it is to say something – are the obvious use for jargon. For example, my PhD looked at the causes of childhood Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. No one in their right mind is going to say that 20 times in a presentation – hence the jargon “ALL” (pronounced A-e, El, El).

Similarly I sometimes talk about something called Transactional Analysis in my presentations: that becomes TA… and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator becomes “MBTI”.

It’s obvious, right? “For the sake of a shorter, better presentation I should use jargon… so long as everyone in the audience understands the jargon.

Exclusivity is the inevitable side effect of using jargon in your presentation, even if you don’t mean to do it intentionally.

Exclusivity is what you get because what you’re actually doing is saying “we’re insiders and you know that because we all speak the same code”.

“Obviously, people who don’t speak the same code are outsiders… but we’re all together. We are like each other. We’re a clan.”

“And if there’s anyone in the audience who isn’t a member of our clan, that’s their problem…”

You know it’s true – think of when you were a kid and everyone else had a secret they wouldn’t share! 馃槈

The logic of the ‘speed’ issue is that (assuming you want your presentation to be understood by everyone) there’s little advantage in using jargon while you’re presenting, because the people you need to influence might not understand the jargon. That’s the standard presentation-skills-training-mantra!

But is the standard presentations mantra correct?

Caution note about your presentation

Logically – though also scarily! – it’s possible that the best thing to do in your presentation might be to use jargon even if it excludes some people in your audience. Why? Because using jargon might make you an ‘insider’ as far as decision-makers in your audience are concerned. It’s a risk, I get that, and I’m not saying you should use jargon. I’m saying you should think about using jargon, consciously, depending on what your presentation is intended to do, and who the key people are in your audience.

Personally I tend to avoid it, but there’s a logical case to be made for it! Let’s take a hypothetical situation first, then a real one. Suppose there’s one key one key person in the audience you need to authorise your recommendation to change to left handed widgets. It might be worth sacrificing what the other people in the room think of you if it makes it more likely the decision-maker is influenced by your use of jargon. (If you’re interested, there’s a post here about triaging your audience and designing for target sub-audiences.)

Here’s a personal example

I get a lot of my work from tendering. That means I’m often making a presentation about why me and my company are the best people for the job. Now… suppose there are two companies involved who score exactly the same in all the selection criteria, how am I going to make them pick me instead of the others? The decision makers in the audience for my pitch-presentation could toss a coin, or they could be influenced by something else.

Side note – this example is changed a bit so you can’t identify my clients.

smiley faceBut you knew I’d edited it, didn’t you ‘cos it’s just not possible anyone else could give as good presentations training as I do!

My last big pitch like this was to a large city Authority who work in exactly the same way as every other Authority in the country… but where every other authority has “Divisions” they have “Directorates”. They are exactly the same thing and calling them Divisions wouldn’t mean I couldn’t help their staff – but calling them “Directorates” made me sound like an insider. I “got” them in a way the other company didn’t.

I got the job – and I’m busy training their staff.

Depending on the context, using jargon in your presentation might be the right thing to do, even if most of the people in your audience don’t understand it!

Dr Who example – the power of context

smiley face

You probably know me by now – if I can get a Dr Who reference into a blog post I’m going to do it!

Daleks made crap presenters

Strictly this bit isn’t about jargon but it’s a powerful illustration of the power of judging your audience and how much they know – how much you have in common with them (including jargon!).

Here’s a simple experiment I ran recently.

I posted the same thing (copy & paste) in two places in facebook. One in a group of Dr Who fans and one on my public profile. You can see the difference in responses pretty clearly in the two screenshots!

Dr who presented out of context

Dr who presented in a great context

On the left is the post on my personal profile – and it’s risible response – while on the right is the same thing in a group of Dr Who fans. The former got one like and a comment (to which I replied). The latter got seven clever comments and over 70 other responses from my “audience”. I know it’s not exactly the best research in the world, but look at the number of responses. Context is everything! On my timeline the only response I got was from someone who’s also a member of the fan group… no one else had a clue what I was talking about. (Obviously I need to get out more!)

The point is, by judging my audience I can decide what jargon (or other insider stuff, like gossip) I can use.

Once you’ve spent time considering what you’re trying to do in your presentation – what outcomes you count as success and who it is in your audience that is most likely to move that forward – don’t forget to think about what you have in common with them and how you can use that!

So what do you think?

I’m pretty sure we’ve all seen bad presentations, riddled with jargon that just turned us off. (If you haven’t, well done!) But what about times when jargon was well used in a presentation. Have you spotted that? And if not, is that because you didn’t notice it – because you were on the inside of the clan?!?

Oh, and by the way, last week’s presentation skills blog looked at something similar – using long words in your presentations.


  1. Laura

    Great post!
    I like it when jargon is explained and then used.

    • Simon Raybould

      … or the other way around?

      I didn’t go into it in the blog post, but there’s quite a bit of research into things like circulating jargon definitions in advance of a presentation as “pre-work”. It makes a surprisingly big difference.

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