Avoid jargon to keep everyone on the same page

Photo by Lower Eastside Action Plan

The call for submissions for presentations at the Michigan Association of Planning’s annual conference prompted the folks at the planning firm of Birchler-Arroyo Associates to write this facetious proposal, using current industry buzz words:

“Calibrating Green Zoning for the Creative Class, Millennials & Sustainability: A Pop-Up Hybrid Crowd-sourced Approach to Locally-Grown Urban Place-Making and Complete Streets in a post-Euclidean Form-Based Flat World Using Four Square.”

It isn’t just planners. People in many other industries rely on jargon. Sometimes you need it: It’s code to show you’re a member of the club. But when you want those outside your industry to understand, it gets in the way.

Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) has developed a process in which Detroit residents to turn the neighborhood they see today into the place they want it to be tomorrow. They also had to invent a vocabulary relevant to the residents and to their audiences.

“Planners always talk about density, but density is an abstract concept for lay people. It’s hard for someone who’s always lived in a single-family neighborhood to articulate how they want it to have a different density,” said Sam Butler, a CDAD board member and co-chair of its strategic framework committee. “We sought to make it possible for someone to describe the kind of neighborhood they wanted without needing a master’s degree in urban planning. We needed to give the citizens a vocabulary to convey their ideas to planners, government officials and decision makers.”

CDAD named 10 types of neighborhoods. For example, “Traditional” residential neighborhoods follow Detroit’s historical housing patterns, with homes occupying every lot on the block. “Spacious” describes a street with homes on larger lots – possibly up to a quarter acre — with what would have been two or three lots between houses. “Urban homestead” areas may even have one house on a block. Butler said they gave much thought to this last label.

“We thought about calling it ‘country in the city,’ but didn’t want people to think it was just about farming,” he said. “We wanted to convey a certain type of self-reliance for an area which, due to the city’s financial constraints, may not have the same urban conveniences, such as street lights or trash pickup. The name suggests that you have chosen to be more independent and to craft your space the way you want.”

Planners might use the industry term “Roadside carbon sequestration”  to describe a major road lined with trees or other landscaping. CDAD’s strategic framework calls them “Green thoroughfares.” What planners call a “distressed” area, CDAD calls a “Naturescape” or “Urban Homestead.”

“People who had no prior urban planning background quickly picked up this vocabulary,” Butler said.

Think about your audience when you write. Is it a guaranteed group of insiders? If not, form a mental picture of the least-knowledgeable reader and ask yourself if s/he would know what you mean.

Never afraid to call a foul on my own peeps, here are eight PR industry jargons to make you wince.

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