Adapting to the Language Conventions of Your Audience

By Joey 

A year out of college, I got a job at National Journal, a political media company in Washington, D.C. The team I was on researched political advocacy tactics and produced reports recommending certain strategies to our readers. Early in my time there, a humbling experience occurred to me with some frequency. Based on an interview with a lobbyist or an article I had read, I would conceive what seemed like a brilliant new tactical idea, but when I wrote it up in blurb form to share with my colleagues, they would be unimpressed. Later, my boss would float basically the same idea, just couched in much sexier consultant-speak jargon, and everybody on the team would nod their heads vigorously, congratulating him on his great idea. 

After a few months of this, I realized that my problem was a failure to adapt to the language conventions of my audience. The audience for our reports was of the class traditionally known as “lobbyists,” although most of them now prefer the term “government affairs professionals.” Rather than the glad-handing and back-slapping that “lobbying” might suggest, most of them played a primarily managerial role, directing small brigades of advocates, grassroots organizers, and media specialists. They tended to be middle-aged, with many years of experience in both government and the private or non-profit sectors. A lot of them reported directly to the C-suite at Fortune 500 companies, or to the board of directors at mega-associations like AARP. And like the members of any other profession, they often used a specialized language to communicate with each other.

In the writing world, we refer to a group like this as a “discourse community.” Every community has its own special conventions for discourse, whether spoken or written. These can include preferences for particular vocabulary, organizational structures, voices, citation styles, etc. Often these rules are tacitly assumed, rather than formally written out. For the community I was dealing with—government affairs professionals—the preferred terminology included a lot of business-management and political jargon. If we were to appeal to them in our reports—if we were to be seen as credible experts in their field, as members of the same discourse community—then we had to use the same kind of language. So, this was the language that the folks on my team were expected to use. I learned that, if I didn’t present my ideas in the same diction, they were not taken as seriously by my team members, because they would not be taken as seriously by our ultimate audience, the lobbyists.

It took me a while to accept this. I thought that I should be allowed to express my ideas in plain English, even if it sounded informal and colloquial, because this made for clearer, simpler writing. We were always being told to write as clearly and simply as possible, but this seemed contradicted by the tacit expectation that we should dress our writing up in a fancy sort of consulting-speak. Eventually, however, I came to accept that, in certain situations and for certain audiences, it can be preferable to use the more advanced, specialized language of that discourse community, even if it’s possible to express your idea in more common language. 

Consider an example. My naïve self might have said something like “they use this tool to find the best advocates,” whereas my boss might have said, “they used this tool to conduct an advocacy talent search.” My boss’s rephrasing serves at least two distinct purposes. First, it links the idea to a well-known concept in the business world, the “talent search.” For the specialist audience, this calls to mind a whole host of associations—they will think about everything they know about talent searches—and so, this expression provides them with a richer meaning than the simple, colloquial version would. Terms of jargon provide specialists with a kind of short-hand for expressing complex ideas with just a few words. Second, by using the specialized terminology of the business world, my boss appears to the audience as a more credible, knowledgeable source. In other words, it shows the audience that he is indeed a member of their discourse community. There’s nothing wrong with dressing up your language a little to achieve a certain effect on a particular audience, just as there’s nothing wrong with dressing up in nice clothes for a particular occasion. Of course, you wouldn’t want to wear a suit or a ballgown to a soccer game—it’s a matter of discerning the right level of formality for the occasion. In writing, we call this determining the “rhetorical situation,” which includes an analysis of your audience’s expectations.

Even if you judge that the rhetorical situation calls for more advanced diction, though, the writing still needs to be clear. I’m sure everyone has read a piece of writing in which the author was trying to “sound smart” by using specialized terminology, but the author didn’t quite understand what those terms meant or how to use them properly, making the writing incomprehensible. Using the fashion analogy again, if you try to dress in high style but have no clue about the rules for haute couture (what garments go well together, what seasons each garment is appropriate for, etc.), you might end up looking more foolish than if you had just dressed in your everyday clothes. So, only someone who has a firm grasp of the specialized language of a discourse community should attempt to use it. In my first three months at National Journal, my colleagues were tossing around all these consulting and business terms that I was unfamiliar with; if I had attempted to mimic their language at that point, I probably would have used it wrong and fallen flat on my face. (Actually, I’m sure that did happen at some point.) I had to actually learn the language first, through a gradual process of acculturation, before I could use it. If your understanding of the language of a particular discourse community is shaky, you might be better off simply using language that you’re more comfortable with. Or, give your writing to someone who knows the rules of that discourse community, so that they can check the style. (This is one way the Writing Center can be of service!)

In general, when in doubt, it’s usually better to err on the side of simplicity and clarity, so that you don’t sound like you’re just trying to impress people. But when you’re in a situation where a specialized term or phrase would get your point across to your audience more concisely or with a richer meaning, don’t hesitate to use it! This isn’t using jargon for the sake of jargon; it’s demonstrating that you are part of a particular discourse community.