Is Jargon Ruining Your Questions?


We are talking about using plain language in your questions and cutting out the jargon.

Why does that matter? This should be obvious, but it is not. It matters because if people can’t understand what you’re asking they are going to leave, or worst GUESS. And having a bunch of data that is comprised of guesses is not helpful to you at all.

Jargon is a gatekeeper, and not the good kind.

Video Transcript


Karyn:                   My name is Karyn Kelbaugh and I help small businesses with customer research. I also do evaluation for nonprofits, which is a big word for research. I will de-Jargon myself and just say – evaluating is measuring how well they are doing what they are trying to do. So there we go and you can find me at

Maggie:                Perfect. And My name is Maggie Hodge Kwan. Like Karyn, I do evaluation or in other words, research for nonprofit and philanthropic foundations and you can find more about me and my work at

We ALL Use Jargon

Karyn:                   Awesome. Yeah, we. We’re like the worst offenders, researchers, in general about using jargon, so we’re preaching to ourselves at this point. This covers everybody in all sorts of fields but man, researchers just, we’re like, “I know all the words! I’m going to use, all the words! Why wouldn’t I use all the words?”

Maggie:               And with good intent, is that we can also be a little bit pedantic and

Karyn:                   What does pedantic mean? Can you tell us what pedantic means? We’re gonna have to define everything. 😂

Maggie:               We survey people and researchers also want to be really careful and act in integrity in how we present things and sometimes that causes us to assume that our knowledge is everyone else’s knowledge.

Karyn:                   So the main problem here is that when you’re writing a question, you know the things, you know the words, you know the best word in your field for this topic or this problem or symptom. You’ve been in the field for awhile and every single type of job or type of field has its own language. It has its own words that mean different things like there’s the Internet people and the business internet people who are using all their acronyms and things and there’s engineers, oh my goodness, and they have all their acronyms.

Karyn:                   Everyone who has expertise in an area or is used to the common language of that area, you get used to it. Then when you’re trying to ask a question of someone who may or may not be knowledgeable about those things, we have to stop and realize that we need to use the most plain language possible when we’re asking a question so that the most number of people can understand it. I was trying to think of a good example. I mean there’s so many.

Maggie:               There are tons, I work with philanthropic foundations and even that probably requires a plain language explanation, but basically, groups of people governed by law and overseen by a board, that fund raise and then manage giving those funds. So giving money away to support local charities or nonprofits that work in any number of different sectors. That’s so jargony still, but I’m thinking about the particular language they have that I have seen in questionnaires to potential donors where they ask things about endowment funds and spend down funds and named funds and all these things that 99 point nine, nine, nine, nine, nine percent of the population would have no idea what that is, and don’t really need to know to be honest. But wouldn’t be able to respond to that kind of question with confidence because who knows what those answers are.

Using Jargon is a Form of Bias

Karyn:                   Right? And another way to look at it is that if you use…it’s impossible to remove everything that might have some jargony or more complicated words out of it. But if you are using jargon and complicated language in your question, that is a form of bias and what we are trying to do is help you understand how to make bias free questions. And the way that that has bias is that it is eliminating everyone who doesn’t know what you’re talking about from answering the question. So you’re only going to get answers that are real from a smaller portion who already knows what you’re talking about. So if you’re trying to reach people who are new to you, are new to the thing that you do, they’re going to be like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. Skip, I’m out of here and you’re not going to get answers from them.

Like Explaining Gravity to a 7 Year Old

Karyn:                   So you have to think about who the potential responders are, who is your target community or target group that you are trying to get answers from? And think about what their knowledge level probably is on the subject. And say, okay, what if they don’t know anything about what I’m talking about? And Maggie had a good comment earlier. When your kids ask you complicated questions like, “Mom, can you tell me how gravity works again?” And you’re like, okay, and you literally have to go, okay, a seven year old is asking me to explain gravity. I have to use a seven year old vocabulary to explain gravity. And you kind of have to approach it that way. What is the simplest, most direct way I can ask this question and still get the answer that I am looking for. So it’s pretty much, it’s that simple.

Maggie:               Yeah. So if you had written survey questions and you wanted to screen for jargon, there are a couple of ways you could do it. One, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look to see if there’s anything that would need to be defined. So for example, if you were an epidemiologist writing a survey that was meant for the general public to gauge perceptions around public health, you wouldn’t want to be using words like epidemiology because people are like, what the heck is that? And you know, you wouldn’t want to be using really scientific language that would require people to say “What is that and how do I respond to this?”

Karyn:                   The other one is slang. It’s like we think jargon in terms of just fancy words in the field, but it’s also just slang that gets used in that field that only means something to the people in that field.

Maggie:               Capacity building. 😂

Karyn:                   Things that mean one thing in one field can mean something completely different somewhere else. So then it can get really confusing if they’re thinking, well in the general public this word means this, but over here you’ve used it in a clever way so we have no idea what you’re talking about. And, even if it’s just a matter of showing those questions to other people that you trust but do not get what you do, those are perfect people to show it to. “Do you know what I’m asking?”

Maggie:               Yeah. Are there any words that you would need to Google for the meaning so that you could complete this survey? Because if so we should know about that and we should get rid of them.

Karyn:                   Exactly. Yeah. If your people have to go, okay, so what do you mean by that? Then it’s too complicated. Well that that’s it for today. So please take a look at your questions. Give them to your family members, see what they think, and if you found this content valuable, please like and share. Thank you very much. And if you want to keep up with our video series on questions, please subscribe to this channel.  

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