Classic Post: The 12-Year-Old Nephew Rule

Editor’s Note: Since August 2010, I’ve written more than 800 posts. Some of the most popular posts have gotten buried over time, so I occasionally unbury especially useful older posts to share with readers who missed them the first time. This article was originally published on June 15, 2011.

If you’ve ever visited New York City, you’ve probably seen sidewalk signs telling you to “Curb Your Dog.”

I’ve never owned a dog and didn’t know what that sign meant, so I looked it up. Some websites say it means you should pick up your dog’s poop. Others say it means you should train your dog to “go” at the curb, as to allow urine to flow easily into drains and prevent unsightly sidewalk stains. And yet another site says it means to keep your dog leashed.

Please Curb Your Dog

I like to think I’m a bright guy, so I’m guessing that if that sign leaves me clueless, it leaves some other people clueless as well. And for those one in five American households that speak a primary language other than English at home? Well, if they have dogs, I’m pretty sure many of them have no idea what this sign means either.

Here’s one more, courtesy of New Jersey Transit:

Egress? I know what that means because I’ve owned a home before, but I’m guessing many daily commuters aren’t familiar with the term (it means exit). Why not just say that?

Media spokespersons and public speakers commit the same sin of using unclear jargon all the time, making those of in the audience think, “For the love of god, tell me what you mean!”

The 12-Year-Old Nephew Rule

Here’s a trick from a former ABC News colleague to help you avoid industry jargon that prevents your audience from understanding your meaning. She once interviewed a jargon-filled scientist. After 20 minutes, he still hadn’t said anything we could use on air. She ended the interview, thanked him, and said, “Could I ask you a favor? My 12-year-old nephew loves science. Would you mind doing one take I could show to him?” He agreed, and delivered a terrific answer without any jargon – and that’s the take we used that evening.

If you have young people in your life, run your messages by them. If they can paraphrase them back to you in their own words, you’ve successfully eliminated the jargon.

I’m guessing they’ll just say “clean the poop” and “keep the exit clear.” And that’s when you know you’ve succeeded.

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