I don’t socialise with all that many CEOs – I don’t move in those circles – but someone I know is the head of a global energy group and recently complained to friends:
“Ugh, the business jargon in our company is terrible. The rubbish people write is unbelievable and it’s everywhere!”
Her husband, who is pretty senior in the same company, sighed and concurred. Their frustration surprised me. Up until then I’d assumed that if jargon was rife in an organisation’s communications then the people at the top must approve of it, otherwise they’d stamp it out. Apparently not.
I thought this little anecdote could then be the beginning of a blog pointing out the evils of business jargon, where I point out that top executives are simply annoyed by it. I started looking online for examples of clumsy communications that I could skewer.
There, I encountered a problem. On page after page of my search I found a stream of articles all condemning business jargon, railing against buzzwords, Corporate Speak and business gobbledegook in the same way that I was about to: The 40 Worst Buzzwords; Ditch Jargon Now; 10 Ways To Annoy The World With Stupid Made-upismsand so on.
What this seemed to indicate was that everyone hates jargon. We all agree that it’s unclear, alienating and ridiculous. There was clearly no point in my writing yet another such article.
Jargon is viral
However, it does raise the question of why jargon is so prevalent when everyone is so against it. The answer seems to be that it’s somehow viral. So, rather like an airborne virus whose name I don’t need to remind you of right now, one person at work starts using a certain term, co-workers are thus exposed to it, it works its way into their brains, and is then transmitted orally through the workplace. Jargon, too, has its ‘super-spreaders’ but no-one can help passing it on if they get it.
What about immunity – ‘herd’ or otherwise? Well, there does seem to come a point where although everyone is using the buzzword, it ceases to mean anything. One example of this is ‘proactive’. About 20 years ago it was the new thing. You could sit in a meeting and say ‘I think we should take a proactive approach here’. Around the table, heads would nod and your boss would put a mental tick against your name, marking you out as management material. You could be safe in the knowledge that nobody would ever pipe up with: ‘Actually, I disagree. A reactive, rather than proactive, approach is more appropriate’. And best of all, it wouldn’t be necessary for you to explain what a proactive approach would involve or look like in any way.
That won’t work now. Dear old ‘proactive’ has had its day. You can still use it but you won’t score points for it. Go back a couple of years and ‘agile’ would have done the trick for you. Nowadays, ‘co-creating solutions’ might get you some credit. It all depends whether communication in your organisation is ‘legacy’ or ‘bleeding edge’ … oops, excuse me for slipping into jargon for a second – there’s a lot of it going around.
Searching for a vaccine
Having now realised that jargon is contagious, I needed to find out why, and what we can do to protect ourselves and those we come into contact with. The search for a vaccine was on.
The first thing to do is to distinguish generic business jargon (which sounds good but doesn’t mean much) from specialist terminology, which is useful and necessary. A mechanic isn’t going to say ‘Can you pass me one of those turny-round things we use for lifting up cars’. The correct term is ‘jack’, and the mechanic has the right to expect anyone else in the workshop to know what it means. Likewise, if you work on a desk that deals in credit default swaps you might want to refer to one as a CDS, not say ‘an instrument for insuring the lender against the bond-issuer defaulting’ each time. Technical language is perfectly OK in technical circles.
But when necessary technical language is combined with a few pointless buzzwords, intelligibility can collapse. Take a look at this wodge of verbiage:
Join the engineering teams who build massively scalable software and systems, architect low latency infrastructure solutions, proactively defend against cyber threats, and leverage machine learning alongside financial engineering to continuously turn data into action.
It reads like a list of desirable words strung into a sentence. Some of the specialist terms are warranted but others are just there for effect. We can accept that ‘leverage’ has now become a verb (despite there already being a verb ‘lever’ from which the noun is made) but it is a buzzword. And as for ‘architect’ being used as a verb when the word ‘design’ perfectly describes what architects do? I pray that doesn’t catch on.
Bad news isn’t any sweeter for being sugar-coated
It’s not just a question of taste; it’s a question of efficiency and productivity. Business jargon is deliberately abstract and vague. For one thing, it’s harder to be caught out if what you mean is less clear. If I say ‘I will ensure that colleagues across all geographies are cognizant of the current deliverables and adhere to anticipated timeframes’, I’ve got more wriggle-room than if I say ‘I’ll make sure everyone knows what they’re meant to do and finishes it on time’. The latter is an unambiguous commitment to getting things done. And if I say ‘I will be reaching out to stakeholders in this space going forward’ this might superficially make me sound professional and dynamic but all I’m really saying is ‘I will send people emails’. Putting it in plain English would challenge me to say something more substantial.
Corporate speak is also an attempt to shed undesirable associations that can backfire. An example of this is when workers’ jobs are cut. Once upon a time, we might have talked about ‘laying people off’ or ‘making staff redundant’ or ‘having to let you go’. These are now old-fashioned, it seems. ‘Headcount reduction’ is now current, whilst ‘restructuring’ (though not strictly denoting cuts) is usually understood to mean that someone, somewhere, is destined for the exit. Constantly changing terms in this way is futile as the negative associations are inescapable – involuntary redundancy is a bad thing. Negative connotations soon catch up with the new terminology, to taint it like all the words that went before. There is a danger that overuse of euphemisms or avoidance of plain-speaking makes the audience cynical about the motives of the speaker. Bad news isn’t any sweeter for being sugar-coated or wrapped in the latest messaging.
So what should you do? If you’re tempted to use a word that you wouldn’t use outside work, make sure you’re not about to do it for one of these reasons:
- it sounds more ‘businessy’
instead, identify the practical business value you’re creating
- it sounds ‘tough’, or ‘empathic’, or ‘dynamic’
instead of trying to sound this way, be this way if that’s what you aspire to
- it saves you defining exactly what you mean
give it the extra time and thought so you can be precise and accurate
- you know your boss/client uses it and so you’re following suit
OK, you might need to do this sometimes, but don’t overdo it