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NAVCA, jargon and a good move towards more human institutions

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

This morning, I was glad to see that NAVCA – one of the English voluntary sector’s national representative bodies – had declared on their homepage that “to help us explain the work of our members and the difference they make, NAVCA is changing the language we use,” abandoning a handful of specific terms that mean very little to anyone who doesn’t work in a national voluntary sector umbrella body, or specific parts of government.
BritVolSecjargon

A simple, but important message

This is a declaration that likely received little interest from most who have come across it – who cares if NAVCA is no longer referring to ‘Local Infrastructure Organisations’ (sometimes woefully abbreviated to ‘LIOs’), or ‘the third sector’? (Please let me know if you think I need to write a ‘what’s so wrong with jargon?’ prequel post…).

It is unlikely to be an announcement that receives a lot of attention, but is an important one, nonetheless.

We’ve known the problem exists for some time now…

For years, staff in (mostly) large voluntary organisations, have regularly discussed the problems of ‘jargon’ in the sector; namely how it tends to confuse and exclude, more often than it actually allows us to articulate an idea more clearly and succinctly than we could with more regular language. It seems to come up at nearly every conference and workshop involving national and larger local and regional organisations, and within countless internal organising meetings at these same organisations, yet, if anything, both the quantity and frequency of the use of jargon, seems to be ever-increasing.

Why is this? If there is recognition of the problem (namely, that the people we are trying to reach and support are unlikely to know what we are talking about), than why don’t the organisations that perpetuate its usage, just stop using it?

NAVCA are starting to do just that. There are still countless bits and pieces of meaningless English (beyond the handful that NAVCA have found are ‘no longer fit-for-purpose’), that seem to find themselves scattered throughout the sector’s internal and external reports, press releases and promotional materials, but this is still an important first step.

A little more action…

Until now, many of the largest membership organisations in the sector, have ‘talked-the-talk’ about the evils of complex ‘in-crowd’ language in a sector that is meant to be all about people, but have often continued to accentuate the problems and divisions raised by continuing to use phrases and acronyms like ‘hard-to-reach groups,’ ‘CENs’, ‘regional infrastructure consortia’ and ‘BAMER’ without explanation.

Subconscious jargon

Having found myself uttering these terms myself during my time in larger organisations, I can understand how perpetuating the language becomes subconscious. As a former colleague told me, who asked a friend to proof-read a document for its readability and was encouraged to change several phrases in it, “I thought everybody knew what that meant! I don’t even realise when I’m using jargon anymore!”

And though it was a significant realisation for this colleague, many of the people we worked with, and many of those who worked in other organisations like ours, were unlikely to have ever even questioned the terms and phrases that so many people find so utterly baffling.

So NAVCA’s move is a very much welcome one, to say the least; it is the first time (I have been aware) that an organisation of that size has taken concrete steps towards making their work more universally accessible, and though there is still much work to do to make many large voluntary organisations more welcoming to a wider range of people, this shows us that if there is a will, there is indeed a way to make change happen.

Ask your mates…

My colleague’s example is one I have often shared with people in organisations who struggle with recognising when they are in fact using jargon. The test is usually a simple one: get a few people in your life who know as little as possible about the work you do, but that you can trust to give you honest feedback, to proofread public documents before you make them public. Though not a silver-bullet, people who exist outside of our immediate circles can be much better sounding-boards for this kind of feedback, than those embroiled in the same language we become so used to in our day jobs.

Jargon is one of a range of ways that institutions become ‘less human’, and thus less-accessible to people not used to dealing with them. Changing the ways we speak and write can be an important step in changing the kinds of people our services, events and campaigns can reach and involve. Congratulations to NAVCA for sticking their collective neck-out and taking a stand against the overuse of jargon which so often separates people and institutions that exist to serve them.

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