Proposal Tip: Don’t Use Jargon, Unless It’s Your Prospect’s Jargon

Somewhere between high school and business school, many seemingly literate people develop the ability to write grammatically correctly but completely incomprehensibly. However, when you are trying to convince a prospect to sign your proposal, it really helps if they can understand what you’re saying.

Orwell wrote “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” (Read the whole brilliant essay “Politics and the English Language“, which should be required reading for anyone writing proposals, let alone laws.) The best way to structure the proposal is as a story (see Nick Morgan’s article at Forbes, The Secrete to Powerful Communication in 2 Words). There is some problem, which has the following effects …, which you can solve by …, and then everyone lives happily ever after. It doesn’t have to be really fancy. If you can tell the story, you can write the proposal. If you can’t, you need to go back and get more details from the prospect. Other times, we know what we want to do, but it may be different that what the prospect says they want. Rather than sorting it out cleanly, we hide under complex, imprecise language.

So simplify, clarify, simplify, clarify. Use the right words. Don’t utilize sophisticated vocabulary. Don’t use jargon, unless the jargon comes from your prospect. If they need you to work on their Flux Capacitor, you better talk about the Flux Capacitor. If your project will be part of their Differentiated Utilization Management Bureau, and they use that term (and the acronym), you better use it, too. The whole point is that they should be able to understand you. So you speak their language. It’s not an English department, though. You get no extra credit for using language that’s hard to understand.

p.s. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you want your prospects to understand what you’re proposing. There are plenty of proposals, contracts, and legislation that is deliberately confusing or misleading. As Orwell wrote,  “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

p.p.s. On the whiteboard, I have a design for a “Jargon Filter” for our online proposal application. The idea is that there would be a set of default words that would flagged as jargon (“leverage”, “paradigm”, “value-added”, etc). You could add or remove words as needed. Would this actually be useful?

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