It’s possible that at this very moment you’re sitting in a conference room listening to a junior executive go on and on about optics and incentivizing and KPIs. He lost your attention right away when he started using jargon that doesn’t suit your style. Truthfully, it’s hard to imagine anyone prefers this form of communicating, yet jargon has become a staple — and standard — in the business world.
The use of jargon in the workplace is a hard truth that we’ve all of grown accustomed to, but still privately rail against. It’s always been there but it’s getting worse, says Phil Simon, author of Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It.
Simon outlined some of the reasons we keep running into workplace jargon, and also offered up some tips on how to develop and maintain an office free of this linguistic pest.
Why We Use It
There are two types of jargon that proliferate in the workplace: technical jargon and business jargon. Technical jargon is industry-specific, and a vital part of your company’s language — if used appropriately —as it allows you to communicate about your work in precise terms. Then there’s business jargon, which includes all the buzzwords, corporate speak, and euphemisms that have infiltrated the business world, regardless of industry. Where technical jargon represents complex ideas, processes, or mechanisms (i.e., “the cloud”), business jargon does the opposite — it complicates simple ideas with complex language.
The way we speak to one another in the workplace, both casually in conversation and more formally in conference rooms, reflects our company’s written materials. Read through press releases or descriptions of companies on their websites and you’ll find plenty of examples of words and phrases that are, for lack of a better word, meaningless. As our eyes gloss over these terms, we internalize them, and at later points in time these words resurface. You might not even know it’s happening until you hear it come out of your mouth and wonder where it came from.
Over recent years, though, Simon pointed out that the jargon problem has gotten worse because of common SEO practices and the emerging reliance on big data. With every company jockeying to optimize for search or to understand users down to the decimal, the technical jargon of the online world has impacted offline usage. These online narratives are so prevalent that we are changing our language and behavior to echo their terminology, with some people’s communication skills becoming casualties in the transition.
How to Get Rid of It
People are naturally afraid to admit they don’t know what a word means or what an acronym stands for, said Simon. That’s why it’s crucial to encourage people to ask questions if they don’t understand something. Chances are that if one person doesn’t understand something, others don’t either.
For speakers and presenters, the best advice is to invite people in — don’t talk at them. There is a widely held belief that big, complex words makes you sound more knowledgable. This is not true. If you use clear and concise language you will appear more in-control of the information at hand and more people will understand you.
To help everyone connect clearly, Simon advised banning words and phrases like “platform” that no longer mean anything to anyone. Here are more common jargon offenders to reconsider in your language:
- Acronyms, which can be widely understood across industries, like EOD or HR, but the more industry-specific you get the more careful you need to be about your audience
- Vague metaphors like “think outside of the box” or talking about your availability in terms of “bandwidth”
- Fake or vacuous words, like the infamous “synergy”
- Forced portmanteaus are becoming more popular in everyday speak (i.e. “frenemy” and “bromance”) but they don’t always have a place in business
- Euphemisms, which put a positive spin on negative situations, i.e. getting fired becomes “career transitioning” or “outplacement”
If jargon seems unavoidable in a conversation or presentation, poll people to see if they know the term or acronym before you throw it out there. Quickly define it. Reject the notion that something is too difficult to clarify or explain.
Remembering your audience and keeping their interests in mind above all else is the key to better, more effective communication. Over time, with a focus on speaking more smoothly and more simply, you can weed out the jargon from your workplace.
Want to further improve your workplace communication? Send better emails, memos, and reports after learning these five common grammar mistakes to avoid in business writing.
Top image by JrCasas