Beating Business Jargon
Banish Obscure and Confusing Language
The business world is overflowing with unnecessary jargon – words that do more to confuse co-workers and customers than to help them.
Here are three examples: "punch a puppy" (do a bad thing that's good for business); "peel the onion" (look at an issue in detail); and "take a thought shower" (come up with some ideas).
The words may be familiar, but the phrases ask more questions than they answer. And you risk alienating your team members, or losing their good will, if your choice of words is baffling or annoying. This is especially true when you're trying to give them important information.
But jargon is not all bad. Technical language can actually be an aid to good communiction, if it's delivered in the right setting and to the right people. The important thing is to know your audience, and to know the difference between good and bad jargon.
In this article, we'll examine how jargon can reduce the clarity of your communication, and how it can affect your authority as a leader. We'll look at ways to stamp out the wrong kind of jargon, and how to use the right kind effectively... when it is appropriate.
What Is Jargon?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary is a good starting point for understanding what jargon is, because it offers two definitions that immediately help us to distinguish between good and bad jargon. The first is, "confused, unintelligible language," and the second is, "the technical terminology or characteristic idiom of a special activity or group."
Business jargon that comes under the first definition is the kind that is criticized. It might be just slightly irritating: "Let's run that up the flagpole, and see if anyone salutes," for instance. But, why not simply say, "Let's try this out and see what people think"? Sometimes the words just sound silly: "Let's open the kimono on that." Let's not. Let's just tell people about it.
However, technical terms – or "the right kind of jargon" – can quickly and effectively explain a specific activity or meaning to a specialized audience. The key here is knowing who you are delivering the message to. A group of project managers would greet words such as agile, sprint and scrum with a collective nod. An audience of people with no knowledge of project management, on the other hand, would likely be left scratching their heads.
But, using specialist jargon or language, is appropriate – or even preferable – as long as you match your audience's level of knowledge. This is because, in one short word or phrase, you can convey a complex concept or a technical process to them quickly and efficiently.
However, it is vital that you prepare the right words for the right people, and that you don't allow your message to become muddled.
Five Ways That Bad Jargon Hinders Good Communication
- It excludes people. Jargon can be a code that people use to impress others or to deliberately make the point that they are part of "the club." But it is baffling and alienating to those who don't know. These people can be made to feel foolish or part of an "out-group" for no good reason.
- It's complex. You risk sounding pompous by over-complicating your language. For instance, you could say "contact" rather than "reach out to," or "analyze" rather than "drill down." And always opt for simplicity, especially for an audience of non-experts.
- It can be confusing. You can lose your team members' attention, especially if you're working globally or remotely, or if your team is culturally or linguistically diverse.
- It may be misleading. Saying, "Our exploratory research points to a range of balanced options going forward, and we're currently assimilating the data-sets as a priority to create some top-line metrics," may seem like a smart way to avoid saying, "Sorry, I don't yet know." But making your communications unclear in this way is unlikely to enhance your reputation or credibility.
- It can be undermining. If you use jargon in this way, you risk losing your power or authority within your team by failing to communicate accessibly and understandably. People will likely detect that you're hiding behind a screen of tortuous technical terms. Conversely, if they do understand what you're saying, and feel that they can trust your words, it will likely create a more collaborative working environment and better relationships.
How to Deliver a Clear Message
Being able to communicate in a direct and accessible way can boost your standing as a leader and a manager. Here are five tips for delivering your message clearly and concisely:
- Say it out loud. This is useful if you're writing a presentation or a report. You'll likely use more "normal" language if you do this, even if you initially struggle to find the right turn of phrase.
- Use stories, examples and evidence. Don't say something like, "We need to leverage opportunities around a core of millennial-centered deliverables." Instead, clearly and simply outline the findings from a focus group of younger potential customers. Also, you are far less likely to resort to unnecessary jargon if you focus on data or analysis.
- Ask, "Is this word in the dictionary?" Jargon enthusiasts love to make up words or run two or even three together in an effort to sound impressive. For instance, "bouncebackability" or "recontextualize."
- Think about your audience and the context of your communication. Step back and ask yourself, "Why am I saying it this way? Is it because it is the best way to explain it? Or am I being lazy?" Even specialized audiences value clear communication.
- Don't be afraid of the jargon that you do need. Knowing and understanding the "language" of your role is important because it means you can use it confidently and, if you're on the receiving end, you can keep up with what the other person is telling you.
To gain a richer understanding of how to communicate effectively, check out our resources on communication skills, advancing your career, and cross-cultural leadership. You can also find more examples of jargon and how to deal with it here.
A Simple Approach to Complex Language
The writer George Orwell was a great advocate of using language clearly and concisely. In fact, "management speak," or corporate slang, is a reference to his term "newspeak," which he used to describe the propaganda language of Big Brother supporters in his classic novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four."
In some organizations, however, being clear, concise and straightforward in your communications can be seen as "dumbing down," while using long and complicated words can be seen as more impressive.
You should certainly avoid coming across as condescending to your audience, but being direct and transparent in what you say or write is not the same as being patronizing. You can still be clear and concise while using authoritative and technical language, by making sure that you simplify and explain complex aspects of your message wherever necessary.
Jargon can be useful to quickly explain a specific activity or meaning to a specialized audience.
But it can also exclude people, mask meaning, and lead to confusion. Using jargon unnecessarily can damage your reputation, authority, and power as a manager and leader.
Think about your audience and the context of your message, the words that you choose to use, and whether there's a more direct, accessible way of delivering your message.
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