A few years ago I was speaking with a marketing director at an industry event and I asked her what she was currently focused on at work. I quickly regretted askinco-workerstook a deep breath and launched into a protracted spiel about how she was leveraging cross-departmental assets in order to create a thought-leadership platform that would re-focus downstream marketing efforts on initiatives that drive revenue, you know, campaigns that really “move-the-needle.” While I had an inkling of what she was talking about, for people outside of marketing it would sound like Klingon. Plus, to me and most people, this type of jargon just produces a cartoonish thought bubble above our heads that reads, “Ugh”.
While the speaker perceives these words as serious and lofty, it’s truly hilarious from an outsider perspective, in a live-action Dilbert sort of way. But that humor wears off when you sadly realize how pervasive this type of jargon is despite all the mockery it generates outside of the workplace. Honestly, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the groan-worthy phrases we all know so well, like…
“Let’s talk about this offline…”
“I don’t have the bandwidth for this…”
“This is going to require a paradigm shift…”
Instead, how about…
“Let’s talk about this later…”
“I don’t have the time for this…”
“We’re going to have to change our thinking…”
(Check out this article for more cringe-inducing examples)
Why is it that in the workplace we feel the compulsion to alter our language, often making it less direct and efficient in the process? I swear my technical writing professor in college would roll his eyes hard enough to pop them out of the sockets. He drilled into us the concept that less is more. Use plain language and get to the point. “In order to” and “to” mean the same thing, except that you just wasted energy on two useless words. And, don’t use a $10 word unless absolutely necessary. Business jargon does just that, inflating meaning, while often diluting it in the process.
While it’s inevitable for industries to adopt shorthand, the type of jargon that gets passed around the workplace these days is a whole other animal. Who knows the origin of it all, perhaps it was adopted from blue-chip consulting firms that came up with the jargon as a way of justifying their stratospheric fees. If consultants were plumbers, they’d wouldn’t “unclog your toilet”, they would “dislodge the blockage in your plumbing conduit.”
And this is a two-sided problem. Customers, both external and internal (ie, your boss), might not respond favorably to plain-language solutions that point to costly fixes. But if you make things sound complicated and high-brow, potentially confusing the customer slightly, you have just earned your wages. Unfortunately, we think jargon sounds smart. Likewise, we often mistakenly think simple means simplistic.
In this fascinating article on Fast Company, the author – a consultant hired to help build consensus within the C-Suite – noticed that the new CMO whom he was shadowing, was using an inordinate amount of business jargon when he spoke. The client starts off their conversation by saying, “I’ve reserved a conference room so we can really drill down and identify low-hanging fruit for maximum ROI going forward and then circle back to firm up our catch…” Upon further examination and conversations, the author found this language-crutch was due to mounting pressure and a faltering sense of confidence. The CMO unconsciously relied on jargon to make it appear as though he was in control and finding solutions to company problems. After a session alone where the author helped the CMO re-focus and build a concrete strategy, his confidence improved and his speech patterns changed to include less of this fluffy business-lingo.
In addition to inflating meaning and making things sound more grandiose, a more insidious side effect of jargon is that it also obscures meaning. It’s akin to the boilerplate legalese endemic to disclaimer policies – documents that were ostensibly dreamed up by legal departments to both bore and confuse consumers into skipping ahead to the “I accept” button in online contracts. Confusing business-speak can leave customers and co-workers scratching their heads even if they smile and nod, pretending to understand. As an example, I’ve worked with a number of offshore contractors in my last job, and being precise about parameters was essential. If you relied on vague instructions like, “we want something really out of the box,” then you were likely to be poorly disappointed. It can be a form of laziness, as in, “I don’t know exactly what I want, but hopefully you’ll fill in the gaps.”
Referring back to the marketing director I met at a conference who was, “building a thought leadership platform,” she likely meant they were writing a series of blog posts, perhaps a few white papers, or maybe creating some explainer videos. This specificity would have actually given us something more concrete to talk about. Imagine how this type of language affects cross-functional efforts within companies. Jargon can silo conversations by making things sound more complex and department-specific than they often are – and thus preclude participation and engagement from others. Finance launches into their jargon, same for marketing, sales, and HR, and ultimately people become lost in a jargon soup, ultimately lowering engagement among participants.
So the lesson here is simple – straightforward language is more clear, more efficient, and should almost always trump jargon. If you’re looking for a rule of thumb, then ask yourself if you would use the same language to talk to your partner or neighbor. Imagine telling your spouse, sorry honey, I’m not sure I have the bandwidth to pick up the groceries, just wasn’t on my radar today, and regarding that double-date with your sister, let’s circle back – sounds like we got some pushback on that Yanni concert idea, so maybe we can run something else up the flagpole. Good luck with that… and enjoy sleeping on the couch.
For some more fun, check out this online BullSh*t Generator and the book, The Dictionary of Corporate Bullsh*t, which I referenced for this piece. If you want to improve your team’s communication skills, then you should definitely consider one of our fantastic workshops.
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