The Bucket of Names
Tom Salinsky writes...
You have to understand something very well in order to simplify it. As a trainer, I am constantly looking out for simple ways of explaining complicated ideas, and I am hugely interested in how people get to grips with new concepts.
Here’s a fairly trivial example to start us off, which just sticks in my mind for some reason. Douglas Adams, famed author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also served a year as script-editor of Doctor Who, before becoming a best-selling author. Much later, he discussed this post and began by trying to explain to the uninitiated just what it was that a script-editor did. I paraphrase, but this is the general idea. As the script was being written, his job was to represent the BBC to the writer – explain what could and could not be achieved with the resources available, make sure the scripts were the right length for the slot allocated, and so on and so on. After the script was written, his job was the represent the writer to the BBC – make sure that in the inevitable compromises of production, the integrity of the script still survived.
Using familiar concepts, which anyone can understand, the purpose of the obscure job is not only made clear, but we gain an extra insight into the process, and Adams’ description has a pleasing symmetry which also makes it easy to remember.
When I’m working with people who have to present complicate ideas, or work with clients who are less technically able than them, I am often helping them to distill obscure concepts in the same way. They may not always get something quite as elegant as the Adams example above, but we can usually achieve a little more clarity – provided they are happy to avoid using jargon.
Jargon is appealing for two reasons. One I think is perfectly reasonable, the other I’m afraid is not. When experts talk to other experts, their conversation will quite often be a thicket of jargon and that’s absolutely fair enough. Jargon is a very efficient way of packing a complicated idea into a small space and so it’s very useful time saver as well as being more precise. If you’re a web designer you know exactly what you mean by “responsive” even though a layperson would have no idea what that word means in that context.
However, people also use jargon when they don’t need to, or when they shouldn’t, because it sounds business-y, or because they’ve forgotten that not everyone knows these words, or uses them with the same meanings. A few years ago I worked with a team
Ideally, of course, you would always choose exactly the right level to pitch your communication at, but if you’re going to miss the bullseye, I would much rather you erred on the side of explaining too much