Planners and designers use technical jargon to describe elements of a project, plan, city, etc. The amount of jargon significantly reduces the ability of stakeholders to communicate and contribute to projects and plans effectively.
Jargon is useful to describe complex things efficiently with your colleagues, but as soon as a public member, engineer, or external stakeholder walks in the room, it’s time to use common English (or whatever language is used). If a term cannot be replaced with something more common, describe the meaning of the term. Even planners from different agencies have different acronyms for different terms and meanings. Spell it out and describe it!
So, how does jargon affect your project or plan?
Communication is essential for effective collaboration with various stakeholders. Plans and projects require engaging with a variety of stakeholders like architects, elected officials, the public, and others who all have different meanings of words. The less each stakeholder understands each other, the more miscommunication, mistrust, and conflict occurs within a team.
Conflict occurs when two parties misinterpret what the other party is saying. When jargon is used, this occurs more frequently. When people are unable to understand what people are saying, it triggers us to react defensively.
Hinders Public Engagement
The public process is necessary to make our plans and projects better. When the public understands what a planner or designer is saying, they effectively contribute to the project.
Community members are especially vulnerable to not understanding the terms and jargon of a plan or project. Most are not within the industry of planning and will have different meanings of words that we use.
This is especially true if working with an ethnic community whose culture associates words with different meanings than the average American. For example, Karen Umemoto, a professor at UCLA, conducted a participatory planning process with the Papakolea community in Honolulu. When working on the visioning process, the community was resistant to it because in their culture “visioning” held a sacred meaning that was highly personal and is done in private. Once the team defined the visioning process in planning, the community became more accepting of its purpose.
Another example of one word meaning two different things is livability. Josh Cowen’s NextCity article describes how “livability” for one community can mean increasing density and providing viable transit options, and another community means wider roads, more available parking, and single-family housing.
Prevents Authentic Relationships
When people can communicate effectively, they are better able to understand each other and build authentic relationships. Building relationships in planning and designing is the foundation of successful collaboration and teamwork. When we use technical jargon with other stakeholders it can come off as pompous and therefore, untrustful.
How can you avoid using jargon?
Here are some tips:
Have an Intentional Mindset. Your mindset governs your actions and words. Make sure you have a clear intention about what you want to communicate. This helps make it easier to spot and change jargon because you genuinely want to inform or gather feedback.
Know your audience. You must have a good understanding of the knowledge and background of the people you are communicating with to adjust the language you use appropriately. Figure out who your audience is by asking planners with experience with the group of people you are working with.
Find a Champion. It can be difficult to find out who your audience is. So, search for a representative of the stakeholder group to help you change your language to be more clear.
Have a Friend or Spouse Review Your Work. I often use my partner to practice my presentations in front to get feedback on whether she understands the content. Bless her heart! Her misunderstanding of a point I’m making is a sign that I may be using language she doesn’t understand in the context of planning.
Make a List. I began making a list of the common words that make sense to me as a planner, but probably won’t to another stakeholder. That way, I can check my email, presentation, or letter to ensure I am not using those words or defining them to ensure the other party understands what I am saying.
Although we use jargon for more efficiency in our communication, it hinders our ability to work with others for the following reasons:
Hinders Public Engagement, and
Prevents Authentic Relationships
To prevent jargon from having a negative impact on your project: