Early on in my writing career, I took on a couple of articles covering project management. To put it mildly, I didn’t know a Gantt chart from a PERT chart. Worse, I didn’t even know where to start. I had already learned, though, that vocabulary is the fastest way to become an expert on any subject — even if you don’t really know that much about a topic, at least you can talk the talk. I knew that in order to write these articles, I needed to learn the jargon that every project manager uses without even thinking.
So I fired up my web browser, and headed to Wikipedia…
That’s right. My first stop is Wikipedia. I’ll be the first to admit that Wikipedia is never guaranteed to be the gospel truth, but I’ve found that for any learning project, whether I’m doing research for a school paper or trying to find the right words to talk about a particular topic, Wikipedia is guaranteed to be a good starting point. It’s because good Wikipedia articles link to fairly expert sources, the kind that are both a good source for an introductory-level encyclopedia article and for a crash course in the subject.
So, I’ll go to Wikipedia and skim the article on whatever my subject is. I’ll open up links and try to get an idea of related terms and important names. The names of people and companies can be as important to a conversation on a given topic as the actual vocabulary. It’s doubtful, after all, that anyone would have a conversation on productivity and entirely ignore David Allen and GTD.
2. Taking Notes
While I take notes primarily in conjunction with what I read online, you can take notes from any source you find useful. The actual act of transcribing information, preferably interpreting it into your one style of writing is incredibly helpful. When possible, I like to actually write things down by hand, but in this cut and paste world, even actually typing out words and definitions can help. The acts of writing and interpreting make it easier to remember and use a word later on that just copying it into your notes will. If you’ve got a little time, actually writing out a few paragraphs using your new words can really cement their meanings in your mind.
If you’re working on a written project, you may even come out ahead on your notes. You may be able to write them in such a way that you can use them in part or in whole for that research project or article or speech you’re preparing for. If that’s the case, consider trying to take your notes with that end in mind: structure your notes to match whatever product you’re in the process of creating.
Once I’ve got a general idea of a topic, I’ll go looking for an expert who can spend even a few minutes talking to me. I prefer someone in person but the internet has an expert on everything. Hearing how your expert uses terminology is a good way to learn, but using that terminology yourself and asking your expert to correct you can be even better.
At the very least, you’re guaranteed to learn proper pronunciation. I was one of those kids who read a lot of books in high school, including physics. I knew an awful lot about Richard Feynman, but it wasn’t until I actually head someone talking about him that I realized “fen-i-man” is not the correct pronunciation of his last name. That can be the biggest problem that comes from doing all your learning from books or Wikipedia: you may not know just how to say your newly-learned vocabulary.
If you’re struggling with jargon, a good way to get a handle on it is to look up a word’s roots. This can be as simple as typing your word into Dictionary.com and seeing what pops out. Plug in the word ‘dictionary,’ for instance, and it will tell you that the rood is ‘diction’ which means ‘word’ in Latin. The word ‘diction’ in English also describes carefully chosen words, helping us to make a connection between ‘dictionary’ and its root. This technique is surprisingly effective with scientific terms — some scientists just seem to enjoy making new terminology out of old Latin and Greek terms.
The moment you stop using your newly learned jargon, it starts slipping away. If you want to maintain your knowledge, you have to keep using it, if not building on it. Talk about the topic. Write about it. Blog about it if you have no other opportunity to use it in your day to day life. It’s the same problem you’ll have if you learn a foreign language. Even your bike riding skills can get rusty if you don’t use them regularly. They can even become outdated if you don’t notice changes in the area. I make a point of keeping my project management vocabulary up to date.
Just this morning, I had the opportunity to write an article on the topic. If I hadn’t read the occasional project management article or chatted about the topic with an expert or two, I would have had to relearn all of that vocabulary. It wouldn’t have taken quite the effort of the first time around, but it would have made writing that article a much longer process.