Are we using the right words?

By Posted in - Alumni Relations & Higher Education & Language & PR Practice & Strategy and Planning & Websites on November 19th, 2012 2 Comments
Tangle phone cord

Can seemingly simple words cause a communication barrier in education?

It’s all too quick and easy when we’re bashing out a tweet to invite prospective students to our open day by saying something like “If you are a prospective student, come to our open day this weekend”. On the surface this is a seemingly innocent tweet with really nothing wrong with it. But I often find myself asking whether people who are thinking of studying at your college or university really think of themselves as a ‘prospective student’. Are we speaking their language or ours?

The education sector has many words, terms and acronyms that those of us working in the sector feel as familiar with as we are with our own mothers. But I often have a sense of unease when I see them being used outside of the organisation, in our external communications. And that sense of unease grows even further when I see them used online often without regard to likely search habits of those we would like to connect with.

I thought I’d list a few here. These are all widely used, and I’m not as uneasy with some as I am with others, but consider it a starter for ten. Please add more in the comments. And if you have great suggestions for alternatives, please do share. I know people reading this blog post will find that useful.

  • Alumni. I was forcefully told by a client a few years ago that no we can’t use ‘graduates’ instead of alumni because it technically means something different. But do past students of your organisation actually know what the word alumni means? Do they know it refers to them? And how many of those us even working in the sector know when and how to use the word properly (alumni, alumna, alumnae). My Latin is hopeless…
  • Undergraduate/Graduate/Postgraduate. This is a common one to cause problems. The word ‘postgraduate’ isn’t used at all in some cultures and would instead be referred to as ‘graduate programmes’ or ‘graduate student’, but the word graduate also comes with its own issues, possibly read as the verb ‘to graduate’ instead of the noun ‘graduate’. And how many people looking to study their first degree know that it is ‘undergraduate’ courses that they are looking for?
  • Prospective Student. Already bemoaned in my opening paragraph, but do prospective students think of themselves as prospective students, or are they just someone looking to study at university or college?
  • Knowledge Transfer. To me this is a the buzzword of buzzwords in the education sector. We absolutely know what it means, but does anybody else beyond the sector? Working with a client a few years ago we realised that many of our target audience did not know what this term meant. The client’s solution was to say that we should introduce a glossary into their website. I think the moment that you’re thinking of including a glossary in your site is the moment at which you need to change the language, not keep using the same terms that people do not understand.
  • Lifelong Learning. I love this term. It excites me and makes me feel warm and happy inside. But do I only get that feeling because I know what it means? When I really think about it, I think all learning should be classed as lifelong learning.
  • Faculty. Again a term that can get lost in translation across different cultures, and can be used differently even within the same culture. Does it refer to a member of academic staff, or a collection of departments with similarities (the Faculty of Arts)? Do our external audiences even think about faculty-structures or are they purely for internal management systems and should therefore not come into external communications at all?
  • International students. Possibly the most contentious on this list, but do international students think of themselves as ‘international students’ or do they think of themselves just as ‘students’ or someone who is thinking of becoming a student at your organisation? Granted, when they arrive on your website they probably recognise that this one is about them, but is it the term that they would think to search, for example? And does it run the risk of enforcing a ‘them and us’ divide from the outset?

I could go on, but I won’t (and I won’t even start on the acronyms). At the heart of this is a quest for plain English. But the communications strategist in me also wants to see language used that others would search for, so it is also much more than that. What words do you struggle with in the education sector? What battles have you fought to try to get language changed to make it more audience-friendly?

(If you’re interested in a review of your use of language and content in your communications, you might be interested in how we can help through our auditing and benchmarking services)

(2) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Owlyross - Reply

    November 19, 2012 at 3:49 pm

    Just wait until you suggest that academics who are trying to sell their services to business use slightly less academic language than they’re used to using in a research proposal. Weeks of rewrites, negotiating amends, to be told “we’re using our original copy”, which was 1000 words of impenetrable academic speak.

    And then there was the ‘should master’s degree have an apostrophe’ debacle of 2009 (it should, but it took the academic registrar intervening to make the faculty agree).

    The life of a Copywriter in Higher Education…

  • Tracy Playle - Reply

    November 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    Oh yes – there’s even a whole discussion and guidance about that very subject here. Love it.

Please leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.