Jargon in Proposals: How to Avoid Trouble

Jargon can be a great help or a huge hindrance. It all depends on how you use it.

Jargon is a great way to share information both effectively and efficiently, but it’s only effective if everyone involved understands the jargon you’re using.

The good news is almost all proposal professionals agree you have to be cautious whenever you employ jargon. The bad news is there’s little agreement and often much confusion on what jargon is, when it’s OK to use it, how you use it effectively, and when you should avoid it altogether.

Let’s explore.

What constitutes jargon?

In my experience, one of the biggest challenges using jargon is actually identifying what jargon is. I’ve read many definitions, but it all boils down to this perhaps overly simplistic summary: Jargon is a word or expression (or noun) that is understood within a group, but that most people outside the group do not understand.

Professional terminology

Jargon is the terminology we use within a profession. For example, accountants will regularly refer to GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles. Everyone in the accounting profession knows what GAAP means, but those who have never studied accounting probably don’t. The meaning of the word is lost on them.

Industry terminology

If you work in the insurance industry, and especially in the social insurance field, you probably know what CMS means (Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services). But if you don’t work in those fields, it may have as much meaning to you as IORTC (an acronym I just now made up).

Internal company terminology

Companies often use words that make lots of sense to internal staff, but are totally alien to anyone who is not internal staff. It could refer to an internal process, an initiative, or something else you’ve identified and named. That’s great for internal use; it lets your staff communicate effectively and efficiently among themselves. But if you use these same terms outside your company, the buyer doesn’t understand what you’re saying.

Acronyms

While working in the IT field, I once had a conversation with an IT tech about a particular customer. Another associate who overheard our conversation commented when we were done, “Do you guys realize you just had an entire conversation using nothing but letters?” A slight exaggeration, maybe, but not inaccurate. We understood each other well, but no one else possibly could have unless they knew all of the acronyms we bantered about.

Product or program names

Product names are jargon, too. Customers are generally buying a product or service—a solution to a problem. You may have named your product or service, which is a good first step to brand your product. But if your product is not well known in the industry, if it isn’t universal, it doesn’t mean anything to anyone outside your company.

There are so many words and expressions that we use every day, that we know as well as our own names, that nobody else understands. That’s jargon.

The risk in using jargon

Whenever you use jargon, you’re running a risk that a reviewer may not understand the jargon you’re using. “But wait a minute,” you may challenge, “if they don’t understand a word, they’ll look it up, right?” Don’t hold your breath.

Remember that many people who review proposals have other “day jobs.” They have responsibilities and obligations and timelines they’re already struggling with. They’ll review the proposal because they have to, but it’s unlikely they’ll take the time or make the extra effort to look up a term online, or even to turn to a glossary of terms you may include. Most of the time, they’ll just turn the page and keep skimming.

A few rules for using jargon in proposals

It’s hard to write firm rules in the use of jargon because so much of it comes down to personal judgement based on what you know about your buyer and your industry. Still, here are a few general rules that may help.

1. Write for your audience

This sounds obvious, but as proposal writers, how often do we know the entire makeup of the team who will be reviewing our proposals? Is it really going to be a team of civil engineers who understand engineering terminology? Or will the team also include a manager or elected official who still hasn’t figured out how to spell “enginering?”

If you know the makeup of the team you’re selling to, then you can use jargon appropriate for that team. If you don’t, then you must adjust your writing to appeal to the least qualified reviewer.

2. Don’t use jargon if you don’t have to

Sometimes, we spend more time working to explain the jargon we use than simply getting rid of jargon that isn’t necessary. If you need it to make your argument, great, use it. If you don’t need it to make your argument, don’t.

3. Define jargon in each section (or answer)

If you’re writing a book or magazine article, the generally accepted approach is to define a word or an expression one time, and then you’re free to use it throughout the rest of the document. It’s a good approach because people typically read books and magazine articles sequentially, from beginning to end.

Proposals are different.

People don’t usually read proposals sequentially. Many or even most read a proposal like they do a website; they bounce from here to there, back to here, and then off again to something else. If you define a term in the first section of your proposal, and then use the same term throughout your proposal, all those people who do not read your proposal sequentially will not understand the meaning of the term.

Therefore, it is necessary to define each term and word at the beginning of each section where it’s used—or more often if it makes sense. I’d rather risk repeating myself than making a really good argument that influences no one because I’m using words and terms they don’t understand.

4. Take time to evaluate your jargon

Most people in business understand that IT is an acronym for information technology. It’s generally OK to use this acronym in your proposals without defining it. But what about TOS, SME, and CTA (terms of service, subject matter expert, call to action)?

It’s important you take the time and make the effort to critically review the jargon you use to determine if it’s universally understood or if it is, likely, jargon that some people don’t understand.


Jargon can either improve your effectiveness or undermine it. It all depends on how you use it.


David Seibert is the founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses, schools, and to state and local governments. He is also the author of Proposal Best Practices, A Practical Guide To Improve Your Win Rate When Responding to RFPs. You can contact Dave at David.Seibert@ProposalBestPractices.com.