Jargon Puts Off Readers: Study

Thom Weidlich 02.27.20


A new study shows the use of jargon in science writing has the negative effect of distancing people from science in general. We believe this insight pertains to other forms of communications, including messaging in a crisis.

The study presented 650 participants with one three-sentence paragraph on each of three topics: self-driving cars, robotics in surgery, and 3D bio-printing. Half the participants were given writing rife with jargon. Half got translations into everyday English.

The study found that those forced to read the specialized language were more likely than the others to say they were less interested in science. They were also more likely to say they weren’t good at, and were less informed about, science. Those who read the jargon-free versions were more likely to say the opposite — that they embraced science and were knowledgeable about it.

The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong.

— Hillary Shulman, assistant professor of communication, Ohio State University

In other words, the argot alienated. That should be a lesson for all communicators, including those in a crisis, when the last thing we want is to turn off stakeholders.

As the study says, “Although our findings were produced in the context of science, the theoretical nature of our claims suggest that these relationships should extend to other domains such as doctor-patient communication, public-health campaigns, and politics, among other contexts where gains in literacy and engagement are sometimes needed.”

‘Vigilance Decrement’

Here’s an example of the jargon used.

The self-driving jargon-filled paragraph contains this sentence: “Currently, this technology is most widely integrated into cars through ADAS; however, concerns about vigilance decrement and the handoff problem make this just a small step towards the ultimate goal of full autonomy.”

The jargon-free sentence reads: “This technology is integrated through driving-assistance systems; however, concerns about drivers not paying attention or not taking control of the car fast enough make this just a small step towards the ultimate goal of vehicles operating on their own.”

We prefer the second version.

‘Don’t Belong’

“The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong,” Hillary Shulman, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, said in a write-upby the school about the research (all the co-authors are from OSU).

What’s fascinating (and counter-intuitive — to us, anyway) is that the results were the same for half of the jargon receivers who also had the option to wave their mouse over the specialized term and be given a definition. The participants found the jargon-filled versions off-putting even with the explanations.

According to the study, this shows “that simply providing definitions or explainers alongside technical language will not reduce the negative effects of jargon use. Instead, practitioners should remove jargon — or other forms of technical language — where possible.”

Good advice.

Image Credit: Happy Stock Photo/Shutterstock

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