Skip to content
Sarah Frick September 12, 2023 5 min read

Drop the Jargon. Keep It Simple

Picture this: You’ve just graduated from college and have moved to NYC for your first real-deal job. You’re nervous about your first day but excited about what’s in store. Then, your new boss tells you, “Take everything you learned about writing, and flush it down the toilet.”

Ouch…so much for your newly framed diploma. But, when it comes to communicating about benefits, he was 100% correct. The big words and essay structure you learned in college to sound impressive and hit a specific page count isn’t going to get you very far in the world of work. In fact, you’re better off returning to your elementary school days, where you learned to keep it simple.

Attention Span Isn’t the Issue

Remember when the internet went crazy over humans’ goldfish-sized attention span? Well, not surprisingly, that was proven false. And to be honest, we should have known better. According to Deloitte, 73% of Americans have binge-watched a TV show—that’s over five hours in one sitting!1 Seems to me that our attention spans are doing just fine!

So, why do I constantly hear that “our employees just don’t read anything we send them?”

One of the main reasons could be explained by the cognitive load theory. Cognitive load refers to the amount of working memory it takes to process information. Our brains can typically process 5 to 9 chunks of information at a time, discarding or storing that information as it processes more information.2

Certain types of language affect the amount of cognitive load required to store information. For example, low-frequency words—those rarely used in daily speech—have been shown to be more difficult to understand and define when reading.3

Benefits and health care communications tend to be full of those low-frequency words and phrases. Think “adverse benefit determination,” “withdrawals,” and “coordination of benefits.”

When we don’t actively try to remove this language from our communications, we cause cognitive overload, resulting in employees becoming frustrated and detached from the information their brains are attempting to process.4

It’s All About Simplicity

If you’ve ever participated in our 10 Keys webinar, you’ve likely heard about Key #5: Simplicity. If you haven’t, the simplicity key is all about putting aside your deep knowledge of benefits and focusing on the basics instead.

The average American reads at a 7th or 8th grade level, which is equivalent to that of a 12- to 14-year-old.5 So, a 12-year-old’s reading capability is what we need to keep in mind when creating communications. That means no benefits jargon and no complicated descriptions.

Let’s All Get on the Same Page

Here are three key things you can do to simplify your benefits communications.

  1. Stick to one message. In general, each communication should have one call to action so that employees clearly understand the takeaway. If you have multiple messages to communicate, consider breaking them up into smaller, more manageable pieces. A content calendar is a huge help in planning communications throughout the year. You’ll be sure to hit all important topics without overwhelming employees with too many messages in a single communication.
  2. Communicate over time. When launching a new program or benefit, you don’t have to release all the information on day one. Spread out your communications: Start with philosophy and overall messages pre-launch, action items and time-sensitive to-dos during launch, and other details post-launch. That way, employees won’t miss an important step, and you’ll still get out all the information that you think is important.
  3. Eliminate jargon. Unless someone is constantly surrounded by health care terms (ahem, Human Resources and benefits teams), then those terms probably feel like a foreign language. Employees are relying on you to decode those terms for them.

Our Most-Hated Benefits Jargon—and What to Do About It

As part of this blog, I polled the Segal Benz team to get some great examples of benefits jargon that particularly annoy them. Here are some of our (least) favorites:

  • Adverse benefit determination: Your claim was denied. (Easy as that!)
  • Click here: Okay, this one might not be benefits jargon, but it is an accessibility no-no when it comes to links.
  • Embedded deductibles: There’s a single deductible and a family deductible. If you cover multiple people under your medical plan, each person will need to meet the single deductible before the plan starts paying benefits. If, when combined, you meet the family deductible, the plan will pay benefits for all covered family members.
  • Imputed income: Some benefits are considered income by the IRS, and that means you’ll have to pay taxes on those benefits. Don’t worry, imputed income will be listed on your W-2, so you can use it for your tax filing.
  • Narrow network: For this plan, we’ve contracted with a select group of high-quality, high-performing providers and hospitals. You’ll need to use one of these providers for the plan to pay the most for your care.
  • Qualified life event: You can make a change to your coverage midyear if you have a change in your personal situation, including getting married, welcoming a baby, or losing health coverage.
  • Usual and customary: If you go out-of-network for care, you’ll likely end up paying more for services. That’s because out-of-network providers can charge you more than the in-network negotiated rates. You’ll have to pay for your visit, plus the difference between what you were charged and what you would have been charged in-network.

Okay, you get the idea. Sometimes a sentence or two to describe the benefits jargon can help employees get on the right track and lower the cognitive load that they must process in order to understand your communications.

Bottom Line

When it comes to communicating about benefits, it’s best to go back and read through what you’ve written. Can your communications be understood by a 12-year-old? If not, it might be best to remove the jargon and keep it simple.

We’re proud to work with organizations that value their people. If you want to learn more, we’d love to talk








Sarah Frick

Sarah Frick, Senior Consultant Communications, works with a diverse client portfolio across corporate, public sector, and multiemployer organizations.