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April 9, 2011
Learning the Language of Your New Industry
I was nine years old when I realized the power of the written word. Sidewalk chalk, a coal cellar, and Jason Gordner led me to my epiphany.
I printed the word FART in purple chubby letters, the full size of our slate sidewalk. I hid in the coal cellar that peered out onto my mark and watched. Mr. Osborne walked over the letters as though they were invisible; Mrs. Henry seemed not to notice either. But then Jason appeared, read my word, and laughed a great laugh. He hollered for Ben Bradshaw, who came running, and the two made monstrous fart noises as they stood and admired my word. When my dad came home that night, he put the hose to my word. It didn't matter—the damage had been done. The next day I got a high-five from Jason. The power of print. The power of one word.
In the years that followed, I wrote more profound pieces; curriculum, lesson plans, articles, reviews, and such. And yet, my greatest audience was, and probably always will be, nine year-old boys like Jason. They get me, get my humor, see my somewhat sarcastic perspective. I guess that is why I dedicated the past 12 years to working with that demographic. And then, the unthinkable: I moved my cheese. I started a career serving adults. Would they get me? Would they laugh? Could I succeed?
What do you do when your word bank shifts? You may have recently moved on from a niche audience, only to find yourself drowning in a sea of unfamiliar, industry-specific jargon. The act of writing copy, an act that once made you feel like you were in the driver’s seat of a luxury car, now makes you feel like you are in the back of some ancient bus. On a dirt road. In a foreign country.
You could delve headlong into industry periodicals and hope that you acquire enough buzzwords to make you sound fluent. But when your job is to churn copy, you’re expected to churn. Your new employers will give you some space to learn your new field, but chances are you’ll have to learn as you go. Here are some tactics I’ve found useful in the search for new words:
Talk to people. You may or may not be surprised that individuals like to talk about themselves, to tell you what they know. Make a cold call to an industry expert, or approach a co-worker in the break room, and ask open-ended questions on the state of your niche. What are the biggest challenges? What are the latest trends? A 10-minute conversation with a 20-year veteran is like a mini-master class.
Subscribe to industry e-blasts. If there’s a niche—unless your niche is table tennis on Mars—there are websites, publications, and professional organizations built around it. Most of them send daily, weekly, or monthly e-blasts, composed of relevant news to your industry. Subscribe to three or four, and you’ll see patterns emerging in their respective copy. These are your new buzzwords—at least for the year or two, when those buzzwords will change.
Have patience. Of course you aren’t going to learn a specialized language overnight, any more than you will become fluent in Farsi overnight—but you still have the raw materials to build good copy. Your editors and project managers will tell you where you might sharpen or subdue. And, until you grasp the language, you may want to listen to them.
In my current role at The Highlights Foundation, it turns out that I have combined my experiences and word banks. I am serving adults in my new role, but the mission of our non-profit is 100% child-focused. I a feel a kinship with the folks we serve. Each person I meet understands the lasting impact of words and how even the silliest or shortest word can leave a lasting impression on a child.
You may become an industry veteran in your new niche, or you may move on, changing your lexicon again. Either way, be flexible, be open, and absorb new knowledge. It won’t be long before you feel fluent again. 

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Alison Myers is a teacher and writing fellow. Her teaching career spans all elementary grades. Most recently she worked as a Literacy and Math Coach—as mentor, professional development facilitator, small group intervention instructor, and curricular consultant. In her role at The Highlights Foundation she aids in program development and marketing. Alison lives in northeastern PA with her outdoor-loving family. 
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