Businesses today have a big problem with speaking in plain English.
The English language is the hardest language to learn and also has the largest vocabulary. Unlike the romance and Eastern languages, which depend more on inflection, local customs and context to give words deeper meanings, English aims to assign a word for everything, creating a broader and more literal description of the world. It is designed to be culture-averse, pragmatic and adaptable.
But that is also its biggest drawback. Since the English language is so adaptable, so limitless in its potential to explain words with other words, it leaves the door wide open for abuse. Instead of being used to clarify and make sense of the world around us, it can be easily weaponized to divert, subvert and otherwise obfuscate sense and clarity. In fact, English has a word for words that are created to obscure the truth: “jargon.”
Another useful one is “buzzwords,” meant to denote a word with a short shelf life, ergo low relevance. Even in a post-“Office Space” world, jargon and buzzwords are still rampant in every aspect of business — resumes, interoffice email, corporate communications, B2B marketing. You name the area, I’m sure there’s a categorical example of language abuse.
This shouldn’t really be surprising. The allure of jargon is strong — it can turn the mundane into the extraordinary.
In just a few pen strokes, your boring “apecs” become dazzling “core competencies,” your dull “increase” becomes a super-strategic attempt to “move the needle,” and why settle for something being plain old “new” when it can be “bleeding edge”?
- “I am a results-driven, self-motivated, best of breed, detail-oriented dynamic team player with a track record of success.”
- “We’d better reorg our tiger teams or we’ll have a burning platform on our hands.”
- “If we get good synergy with other departments we should have great ideation.”
- “Does your company have enough disruption in the global marketplace to satisfy best practices?”
- “I’m planning on leveraging my vertical.”
What is it about conducting business that makes human beings want to speak in confounding riddles? Jargon is alienating and demotivating to colleagues and customers. It’s not just a problem with executives or HR either; jargon is almost inescapable at nearly every level in business.
“Jargon masks real meaning,” said UC-Berkley management professor Jennifer Chatman in a Forbes interview. “People use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and direction that they want to give others.”
Ouch! So how can we all learn how to avoid the allure of jargon in the workplace?
Orwell to the rescue
George Orwell, the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm,” was early on a journalist and critic, where he learned the value of being clear and well-spoken in a short amount of space. In those years he came up with his “Six Rules for Writing Clear and Tight Prose,” which should be posted everywhere people in your organizations are crafting communications:
- Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.
As the old adage goes, you can fool all of the people some of the time, some of the people, all of the time, but never all of the people all of the time. Using jargon and buzzwords in the office will never connect with people and unite them in common purpose the way clear and plain “straight talk” will. Employees care more about what words are saying rather than how good they sound.
The next time you’re feeling the urge to “drill down” on some “pressure points,” try “talking about your concerns” instead. It’s not as exciting, but then again not everything at work must be.
Cord Himelstein is vice president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina Recognition.