Reducing jargon in benefits communication

In summary

Whilst using technical terms and abbreviations when conversing with your colleagues or likeminded professionals is fine, if you try to use the same terms in communications with staff you’re likely to come unstuck. A communication document full of terms they don’t understand is a fast way to make them give up and not read it, so keep it clear to get your message across. Case study: Misys

Article in full

“Due to a realignment of human resources needed to achieve our business goals this year, the position that you hold is being eliminated.” Allow me to translate: “You have lost your job.” This classic piece of corporate mumbo jumbo, emailed to staff at an IT firm, might raise a smile. But it is symptomatic of the HR world’s increasingly slippery grip on the English language. While every industry has its own technical language and abbreviations, lately it seems like a dictionary and a family-pack of paracetamol are required just to decipher things such as pensions literature or a company car brochure. For openers, take HR itself.

From human capital to people management, the field, once known as plain old personnel, has had more name changes than the Royal Mail. And anyone sitting in on a benefits conference these days would score a full house at bullshit bingo before you had a chance to say “holistic health-life balance solution”. John Lister, spokesman for the Plain English Campaign, says: “People use jargon to impress people and move up the ladder. A lot of the time they’ve heard phrases being used before, so it’s a bit like the Emperors’ New Clothes – you don’t want to be the first one to speak up against it. But people need to put their point across properly and communicate clearly rather than using the latest buzzwords to try and look in the know.”

Sally Ling, a consultant at communications firm GR Communications, says: “A lot of it you see in marketing material rather than communications. And it makes you laugh sometimes because some of it is completely opaque. I think the rule must be: if you don’t understand it yourself you certainly [shouldn’t] use it.” First, let’s clear a few things up. Not all jargon is bad. If you are rushed to casualty and the doctors start furiously screaming abbreviations at each other, saving those crucial 20 seconds might make all the difference. David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales and author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, says: “Jargon has to exist.

Without it an organisation cannot succeed because jargon provides an abbreviated way of communicating difficult concepts.” And there are legitimate reasons for using certain technical terms. The problem is complicated by the fact that lawyers are leaning over the shoulders of document writers, warning them to stick to precise meanings, to ward off litigation. “A lot of terminology has a specific legal meaning, so if you start trying to muck about with it, it could be a bit misleading,” explains GR Communications’ Ling.

Nevertheless, there comes a time to call a spade a spade; and there is certainly no excuse for referring to a benefits website as an ‘end-to-end communications interface’. “What I do object to is when people use jargon inappropriately in order to hide some reality. The fundamental principle of linguistic expression is that people should bear their audiences in mind,” says the University of Wales’ Crystal. So while jargon can be a useful shorthand when communicating with other benefits professionals, he believes the fatal mistake is to use the same vocabulary when speaking to the uninitiated. “What can be rightly criticised is when somebody sits in an office somewhere and tries to send out a release of some kind for public consumption and just shoves in the jargon that they are used to because they are used to dealing with their colleagues.”

Pension documents, for example, are notoriously incomprehensible. This should set alarm bells ringing, because although not being about to decipher your VCR instructions might be grating, misunderstanding pension information can have catastrophic consequences. The Plain English Campaign’s Lister says: “Different organisations in the pensions world will always use the terms they are familiar with and it’s left to the workers to work out all these details. “In every pensions magazine you see there will always be an article about how pensions communication is great now because you can do it by computer. Yes, it’s much cheaper, but you’ve still got to explain it plainly so that people understand. Otherwise it doesn’t matter whether the information is on paper, on computer, or projected onto the House of Commons.” It’s the same with any form of benefits communication – if employees think you are speaking in tongues, take-up rates could stay low.

“There so little trust [in the pensions area] that people’s gut reaction is to ignore it and walk away so any kind of jargon is just going to provoke them to do that rather than to draw them in,” adds Lister. So how do you cut through the dross and make sure workers understand what you are rambling on about? The University of Wales’ Crystal, advises: “You must always be ready to understand how difficult it is to appreciate the needs of who you are talking to. People who are talking to those outside their profession should begin by asking ‘Do you know what I’m talking about?’. “You need to take the trouble to do a little bit of market research and ask which terms are known and which terms are used. It’s easy enough. Every firm should have an in-house style which has a list of technical terms, the jargon if you like, that aren’t known outside of the office. And it’s surprising when you start to compile this just how big it becomes.”

Benefits speak top 10

Payroll orphan a person that has been sacked. • Benefits portal also called a website. • Dehire or, in other words, fire • Flexecutive an executive who works flexible hours. • Golden handcuffs generous benefits that a worker will lose if they resign from their job. • Health-life balance the lovechild of work-life balance and occupational health, this translates as ‘being healthy’. • Making a descending flight path with respect to headcount puffed up way of saying you are firing people. • Presenteeism is not giving presents, but turning up to work even if you feel rotten, or even working extra hours, just to appear dedicated. • Soft benefits non-financial benefits offered to employees. • Upstaff to hire more employees. What benefits speak you have heard? Email it to and we will publish it in our Communications supplement in May. CASE STUDY For software firm Misys, translating pensions communication into plain English required enormous mental dexterity. Andrew Brown, group pensions services manager, had to strike a delicate balance between using no-nonsense language and getting the terminology correct. “We had a huge amount of apathy and we were getting no feedback from members. We are too driven by legislation and not by what people need to hear or what they need to make decisions on,” he explains. The company redrafted its dense literature for its defined benefit scheme, with the help of a communications consultancy. “We used to be very piecemeal in terms of benefits and pensions and now we’ve put everything together and produced a fairly concise online benefits statement which cuts out most of the jargon.” He points out that if jargon is used on the website, it has a link though to a definition. While pensions take-up has not gone up, Brown says he is slowly but surely seeing the impact among Misys’ 700 staff. Overall, he adds, the pensions world could be on the road to literacy. “There’s been a drive to reduce the jargon, and the general pubic are getting more savvy.”