Communicating Without Creating Barriers
"Look at these sales figures! You know, Sam, you can't put lipstick on a pig. If we continue this strategic partnering paradigm we might as well be milking a mouse. We've got to cut bait and return to our archetype of using customer-oriented discretionary values to make product re-engineering decisions."
If your head is spinning after reading that, you're not alone. The culprit is jargon: the use of specialized terms, idioms, expressions, acronyms, and abbreviations that are understandable to only a select group of people.
Jargon – the specialized language of a group of people – has its place in the workplace. It can provide a useful shorthand to get across specific meaning quickly. But jargon becomes a problem when it stops people understanding your message. When you start using jargon (perhaps unintentionally) with audiences it is not intended for, people will find you very difficult to understand. Even within the group the jargon's meant for, meanings evolve and newcomers can misunderstand. And soon jargon can create barriers within groups, too.
In the comments above, made to Sam by his colleague, there are seven instances of business jargon and idioms. You may be familiar with some of the words or phrases, but do you know what the speaker really means? Probably not. That is the problem with jargon. It diminishes the effectiveness of the communication. It would be much easier for Sam, and anyone else listening, if the speaker simply said:
"Look at these sales figures! – They don't look good. The new partnering arrangement is not working. We need to go back to deciding on product improvements based on customer feedback."
When Jargon Creeps in
Every profession, organization and specialized group has some unique vocabulary that can speed up communication between group members. This is OK, provided that the meaning is totally clear to everyone who needs to understand. Sometimes it's even a benefit that others outside the group do not understand. For example, patients may sometimes be better off not knowing some of the jargon used between doctors.
Jargon is not effective, however, if your intended audience doesn't understand it. Some people use jargon unintentionally when it's out of place to do so. Others use it to look more knowledgeable.
Sometimes people replace perfectly acceptable and understandable words with fancy, specialized jargon, seeking to impress their audience. These specialist words seem to hold some magical power that can make the speaker feel more intelligent or more knowledgeable. Unfortunately, the impression he or she gives may be a negative one, rather than the one intended.
Whatever the reason you use jargon, if it's out of place and the audience misunderstands, it can create a two-fold problem. While you fail to convey information to them, you may also succeed in conveying a more subtle, negative message: that you have given little thought to your audience, and perhaps that you are insincere and not to be trusted.
Worse, you may never know that your audience has not understood – people often don't say anything if they mistrust you, or if they fear looking unintelligent themselves.
Here are some common uses of jargon. Which ones do you use?
Communicating With Others in Your Field/Group
It's okay, within reason, to use jargon for this, but be sure that everyone really does understand. Use jargon when it helps convey specialist information, and avoid it at other times.
People often use jargon simply because they are not thinking – it becomes a (bad) habit. Jargon that's appropriate within your team or specialist group is often unintelligible to outsiders, such as your customers or members of your family.
Trying to Impress
Jargon rarely impresses intelligent people. You are more likely to create the impression of "trying to impress" than "being impressive". Others may see it as insincere or irritating.
Distracting From Facts or Knowledge
Some people drop into jargon when they want to hide the truth, lessen the magnitude of something, or make it sound more impressive. This is best avoided as it's sure to be spotted. Experienced business people may reject jargon-ridden communication for this very reason.
Distracting From Lack of Knowledge
Sometimes it's unintentional but when you're unsure or under pressure, you might give a jargon-filled answer rather than a straight one. Again, it's best to avoid this as it gives a bad impression.
Trying to Fit In
Using the same language as others is natural when you're trying to build rapport, so jargon may have a place here. But beware! Only use jargon that you fully understand, and that you know is understood by everyone in your audience (not just the ones you want to impress.)
The first step to avoiding unnecessary jargon is to be aware of it when you use it. Check through the jargon traps above. Do you tend to fall into any of these? And if so, when?
Perhaps it's when you are in a particular type of meeting, when you're under pressure, or when you are talking with a particular person or group. Perhaps you use company jargon when talking to people outside your organization.
Once you have identified when you tend to use jargon, think about the things you actually say. A good way to do this is to look back at letters, emails, or speeches that you have written, or think back to a specific conversation you have had. You could even ask someone you know to comment. What specialist words, phrases, expressions, acronyms, and abbreviations do you commonly use? Are they necessary and understandable to your intended audience?
The final step is to think about alternatives to the unnecessary jargon you use. Ask yourself what you could say differently to make things clearer. For questions that you frequently answer with jargon, practice alternative answers that are as simple and clear as possible.
When it comes to communicating effectively, jargon often gets in the way. It creates barriers that stop people understanding you clearly and completely.
By learning to use simple, everyday language instead, your communication will be more effective and more thoughtful towards your audience.
The simple rule is: it is always better to be clear than to be brief or "clever."
By communicating without jargon, not only will you be better understood, you will come across as more sincere, trustworthy and in tune with your audience.