Teaching the person, not the topic

12 comments | Posted: 23 June 06 in General, by Natalie Jost

Years ago, before I knew Christ and before I knew anything about web design or the internet (beyond AOL chat), I regularly ran into people who were more than willing to share their knowledge of these subjects with me. Christians were quick to share with me all about the “glory of the Lord” and “saving grace”. Techies gloated about servers, domains, and html code without ever really explaining what those things were. Usually I was left with mixed feelings of bewilderment and frustration with being patronized and preached to.

No matter what the venue, everyone has their own set of jargon, words they understand and outsiders don’t. Using jargon alienates people and not only does it confuse them even more, they feel stupid because, based on the fact that you know what those terms mean, they feel they ought to know too. That’s not a good place to be in, on either side of that kind of conversation, and yet I’ve found myself there a few times in talking to clients about design, and to family about my relationship with Christ. A client recently emailed me asking about my recommendations for a CMS and I hastily shot back a list of options with my explanations for them (including a shot at Typepad) without really explaining anything at all in a way he could take it all in. His reply set me straight and I apologized, and subsequently began to write this out.

Learning to change the way we talk about these things is important, and learning it is. Just as we trained on the vocabulary to learn the words to begin with, we have to now learn how and when to use them.

Forget your topic and think about the person

I’ve been reading about jargon, relationships, language, etc. and there are a lot of lists out there on what to say, how and when to say it, but there’s really just one thing that all of those lists say (we are trying to make things simpler, aren’t we).

Think about your audience right here, right now and forget for a minute the topic you’re on. Think about who that person (or group of people) is and what world they live in. Do they live in a techie world, a christian world? Or do they live in a secular, artistic, scientific, or literary world? Maybe they live in a sports and beer world. Whatever their lives consist of, they’ll have their own language in that world.

If you’re talking about web design, forget all the terminology you know and try to talk to the person in terms they can understand. If you’re a Christian talking to a non-believer, forget everything you hear in church and tell them what Jesus means to you plainly without the ‘secret’ language. In my web search about jargon I came across this game that is played in certain Christian circles. Phil Stone describes one of his favorite Christian parlor games:

“One of my favorite Bible study subjects is actually a simple game. The group is asked, ‘What does it mean to be a Christian?’ Each person, in turn, is free to answer the question. They must be complete, and they must state the answer for everyone else to hear.

One hitch makes the game interesting. No one is allowed to use any Christian jargon. Everyone in the group who is not speaking listens to the speaker and can ‘buzz’ the speaker if one word of Christian Jargon is used. After being buzzed, or if an incomplete answer is given the next person in the room gets to try. The “winner” is the first person who can completely state what it means to be a Christian and not be buzzed by someone else in the room.”

Imagine if we were to do this across the web! What if, for one day, no one could talk about or blog about web design or development without omitting jargon? I can dream, right? But think about what people could learn, how newbies could finally really “get” what we’re all talking about. In my own world I think about my husband who can barely work the right-click button (sorry honey) — how would I explain CSS to him?

Now imagine we took that to evangelism. I wonder, how many more could be saved by speaking to them about Jesus in terms they could understand? Without talking about God’s loving grace, talk about how God is like a father who loves his children and wants a relationship with them (relationship is becoming jargon too, though). Or instead of talking about punishment for sin and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, talk about the particular sins: lying, looking lustfully at another, not honoring God’s name, etc. and then talk about how Jesus died and actually came back to life (not about Him being crucifed and resurrected). Think about what it was like for you when you were just beginning to figure all of this out. Go back to those days before you knew God personally and before you new an em from a px and reach people with simpler terms (or analogies if you’re skilled in that area) without talking down to them. Talk to the person, just as they are.

Further reading

As a sidenote, using acronyms in writing web copy goes along these lines as well. I have a tough time following this myself, but we should never assume that every reader will know what something means. Even something as simple as my AOL comment above could use an acronym tag to be sure everyone is covered.

Discuss This Topic

  1. 1 Trey Copeland


    What an excellent article, with a great message. I have came across 3 different agnostics in the past few days, 2 of them being online. It’s really hard to try and explain the Gospel to someone like an atheist or agnostic. They just really don’t understand. You have to butter it down for them and tell them in words that they can relate to.

    Again, great article Natalie!

  2. 2 Adam Spooner

    I agree with Trey, great article that needs to be taught to us all. I find myself just throwing out buzz words and seeing blank faces. Then I realize, “Wait, I’ve got to explain this.” Great article Natalie! Maybe we should have a jargon free day/week where helpful articles are to be written without buzz words and jargon…or at least explained. Why not? We have Rails Day and the CSS Reboot. Just a thought, anyways.


  3. 3 Jonathan Sampson

    I gotta say, It is truly refreshing to find God-glorifying (Is that Jargon? :)) articles which are so tightly fitted with Computerese that I am in a complete state of bliss.

    Natalie, thank you for first being a Godly woman, and secondly for being an amazing instructor! I look forward to reading more, and learning more, thanks to your amazing insight!

    In Christ,
    Jonathan Sampson

  4. 4 coffeecupkat

    Great article. It reminds me of a skit we did a couple of years ago at my church. A woman is talking to her neighbor about Christ while gardening together.

    She has this enormous monologue that is entirely made up of Christian jargon (some of which, even most Christians I know wouldn’t know the definition of) strung together at high speed. The poor “neighbor” in the skit is left completely confused. It was very funny. And very sad.

    On the ‘puter end, my local “niche” is construction-related firms. Most of these guys are somewhat technically challenged. Some so much so, their cell phones intimidate them. So you have to break things down into manageable, relatable terms. Sometimes, I’ll use similar construction concepts and jargon to get the general idea across. For example, I have a client who sells premanufactured building components. What makes structural panels and trusses a better idea than individual rafters and two-by-fours is basically the same thing that makes a templated site built on a solid CMS better than individually coding each page.

  5. 5 Natalie

    Thanks for the feedback! I was actually reconsidering publishing this here because it wasn’t specifically web-related, but so glad it’s fallen on open ears.

    Kat, see, now you are an analogy person like me. My husband is a brick/stone mason so I talk about everything in those terms with him. He once asked me why I was so intimidated by this particular web project I quoted awhile back and I compared it to his being contracted to build an entire house. Brick and stone is his thing and he’s amazing at it, and even though he could build a house very well, it’s scary to think about going at it alone or even just quoting it. I have to really watch my webby terms with him. It was only last year that he really “got” what blogging was and now he can explain what I do to people he meets with less trouble.

  6. 6 Kerwyn

    Great article Natalie. I’ve only been a Christian for the past three years and there are times when I feel overwhemled by the Chrisitan jargon.
    It wil help young Christians like myself to better relate to people when we are sharing the gospel.

  7. 7 Nathan Klaiber

    EXCELLENT article!

    In both realms, it is very hard to speak without using jargon – but as you said, you need to KNOW your audience. If I am talking to my boss, I can use specific terms related to web – but if I am talking to our marketing department, I have to phrase it completely different.

    Often times I resort to analogies to explain things to my wife (some of these analogies I have posted on my website – how a website is like an airport, how a website is like a car, etc). These make the picture much clearer to her – otherwise she gets completely lost.

    I have found this to be the best way, even when talking to others about Christ (especially if they didn’t grow up in a church or have any education/understanding). Analogies always seemed to work best with me when I was in school – and I try and use that same practice with others. Overall, its more polite – you arent alienating your audience, you are bringing them closer to the picture.


  8. 8 Josh Aronoff

    Awesome! Praise God I found this site! it’s soo nice to see Christian developers and web designers adressing how we can reach out to people and do God’s work.


  9. 9 Lisa

    Wonderful Article and a great reminder!
    Some days I’m still trying to figure it all out!
    Thank you, Natalie.


  10. 10 Scott Lenger

    Your spirit filled words have been a light from heaven on my efforts to minister to those not yet covered in his blood.

    It must be a god-thing.

  11. 11 Jana

    Scott: LOL. I count five. Is that right?

  12. 12 visions

    I came across this site accidentally. I want you to know how fed up I had become with the majority of “Christian” voices I had been reading as of late online. And look, here’s the kicker—I have no idea what any of this computer code is LOL..I am not a programmer, but a grant writer.

    This was a refreshing read all the same.

    Thank you. Someone out here heard you all.


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