Why Jargon (Terms of Business) Can Be Bad For Business…
My friend, colleague and fellow author Patrick Gray hates jargon, (terms of business) and believes they’re bad for business. He said as much and why when he was interviewed a few months ago by Ely Portillo of the Charlotte Observer.
Patrick Gray is a Fort Mill, S.C.-based technology consultant who deals with the odd tongue of corporate America – “guys in the trenches,” “right-sizing,” “synergy,” “paradigms” – on a daily basis. In meetings, Gray says he, like many others, struggles to understand what workers mean with seemingly unintelligible presentations. And in quiet moments, Gray says he takes people aside and tries to convince them to speak plain English.
Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance, a firm that advises companies on subjects ranging from using technology to communicating more clearly. He has some advice for the jargon-plagued. This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q. How often do you encounter jargon in your average workday?
I deal a lot with high-level folks on down to line management. Any meeting in corporate America you walk into, unfortunately, within the first 10 minutes someone is likely to be using jargon. On the phone now, my least favorite trend is everyone is a machine – It’s always “I’ll ping you back.”
Q. What’s so bad about jargon?
You’re saying something that sounds very impressive, but it obscures your message. We’ve all been in those meetings or had those conversations where 10 minutes later you say, “What was that he just said? I heard a lot of words but don’t know what we’re supposed to do.”
It not only wastes time but wastes meaning.
Q. Why do people use jargon, in your experience?
I think there are two basic reasons. People tend to be impressed with someone who knows big-sounding terms, so people think, “Hey, I’ll throw out something important-sounding that’s meaningless and hope I impress people.”
Q. What’s the second reason?
The more nefarious reason is, in a lot of corporate cultures and maybe society at large, there’s an urge to avoid committing to anything. If you look at corporate disclaimer statements, there’s 48 paragraphs of fine print saying it may or may not be good for you, you maybe can or maybe can’t sue if it doesn’t work, and so on.
If I can go stand in a corporate meeting and say, “We’re going to have a blue sky strategy and circle the wagons,” and six months later the company’s in the toilet, I can say I didn’t promise anything.
Q. What’s your most-hated jargon right now?
“Managing expectations” is probably one of my least favorites. That term comes out when you’ve promised something and you can’t do it, so you say you’ll go back and say they expected too much. It shifts the blame.
It’s no longer, “Hey, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” now it’s, “You were wrong for expecting me to do what I said I would.”
Q. How do you deal with jargon-ers?
If you have enough of a relationship with somebody that does this often, a boss or a colleague, you can say, “Hey, some people might not be getting what you mean.” I’ll take people aside and say, “What did you mean when you said we need ‘blue-ocean thinking?'”
A fair number of people I’ve done that with have said, “I didn’t know I was doing that.” Obviously, don’t call them out in front of 20 of their peers.
Q. Do you have any solutions if you think they might be thin-skinned?
You can also call people out on it jokingly. They’ll say we need to take something offline, and I’ll say I didn’t realize we were in an online experience.
Q. How can you tell if you’re a jargon user yourself?
Listen to yourself talk, or ask somebody in your meeting, “Hey, did you get what I was driving at?” Ask people to repeat back to you what you said. If you say, “We need to get everyone on the bus for a blue-ocean strategy,” and they parrot it back to you, you probably didn’t get everything across.
Q. What are the advantages to cutting jargon out of your work life?
I think if you speak clearly and say what you mean, you don’t have to sound like a third-grader. If you use the English language well and communicate clearly, people respect that. Just emphasizing that you can break this mold sets you apart. There’s so much vapid speech going on that when you stand up and talk differently it’s a great way to get ahead and stand out.
Q. Will we ever see a jargon-free world?
I think as long as people are willing to sue people when they say something wrong, probably not. But on an organizational level, internally, I think if we stop using terms of business we can get a lot closer than we are now.
Alan Adler is an executive coach, speaker & author.