4 Ways To Never, Ever Use Jargon Again

You can use lots of words that don't mean anything or you can speak like a real person and be a more effective communicator.

Listen up, everyone who’s leveraging a new paradigm to monetize and optimize a business: Andy Craig—not to mention most of the rest of us—wants it to stop.

Craig and Dave Yewman, cofounders of Elevator Speech, a communication consulting company they run from Austin and Portland, Oregon, respectively, are and trying to get all of us to become better communicators by speaking more like we do on the weekends.

“When we go to a party on Saturday night, we don’t walk up to a group of people and say, ‘Let me tell you how I optimized my calendar last Wednesday to monetize my business. You tell people a story about what happened. They laugh and ask questions. Then, they go across the room and tell someone else,” he says.

With such an exchange, Craig says you’ve just accomplished one of communication’s toughest objectives—getting someone to share what you’re saying, he says. Your story passed the “So what? Who cares?” test, he says.

Some people feel that using jargon makes them sound smarter or fit in better at work, but Craig argues that it obscures meaning. At a workshop Craig led at a former employer, he asked a team of 15 executives what “optimization” means. He received seven different definitions. The most troubling part of that was that the company was a price optimization software company.

And it’s not just the common folk who aren’t understanding a litany of jargon. New York University physicist Alan D. Sokal wrote an essay entitled, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'' which was published in academic journal Social Text in 1996.

The fact that no one bothered to question what all of the inflated language really meant, and that the hoax slipped past the editorial team and made it into print, speaks to how much we've accepted meaningless words that we don't understand.

If a few too many “paradigms” and “onboardings” have slipped into your vocabulary lately, don’t despair. Craig says we’re already good at the type of storytelling that really resonates with people because it’s how most of us speak to others when we’re outside of work. He offers a few tips to say more with fewer words.

1. Pay attention to how you speak.

The real “dumbing down” of our language comes when we shift from our ability to connect and communicate when we’re relaxed and somewhat informal to when we use “overthought, overwrought words that don’t mean anything,” Craig says.

Think of the last time you told a story that made other people react. What sorts of descriptions did you use? How did you structure the story? What was it about the story that made them laugh or get angry? Those are clues to how you can be more effective in your workplace communications.

2. Use simple language to make people care.

It may seem like everyone uses jargon, but you’ll be a breath of fresh air if you master the art of simple communication, Craig says. Once, when he worked with the CEO of a major golf company, Craig asked the man to explain what his company did. At first, the CEO said, “We’re the leading multichannel retail of golf products equipment and services,” Craig recalls.

But after 15 minutes of questions and discussion he finally blurted out, “We’re a candy store for golfers.” That kind of colorful analogy gives people an image and makes them interested in what you have to say, he adds.

3. Stop using words that are not in the dictionary.

Jargon enthusiasts often make up words like “bouncebackability” and “recontextualizes.” If the word isn’t in the dictionary, there’s a good chance the word is jargon, and you should ditch it, he says.

4. Use examples.

One of the most powerful storytelling methods is to illustrate a concept by using an example or anecdote. So, if you’re claiming that your company changes the lives of busy working parents, follow that up with a story about someone whose life was changed in the way you’re trying to explain.

Craig says this type of buzzword boot camp is essential. In business, when people don’t understand what you’re saying, you could be missing out on promotions, investments in your company, and greater sales. It’s hard to get excited about language that muddies your meaning.

He insists that choosing clear language over jargon isn't “dumbing it down.” “It’s easier and lazier to say, ‘We’re the leading provider of mission-critical seamless solutions that optimize, monetize, and operationalize your business’ than it is to come up with that drop-dead simple explanation that anyone can understand,” he says.

[Image: Flickr user Steve Johnson]

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4 Comments

  • Gwen,

    A most excellent read. I believe your article really hit home to us and made sense because of the industry that we are involved with (press release service industry), whereby what you mention in our article is exactly what we try to preach to many of our customers. Your reference to 'going to a party on a Saturday night' is no different from a journalist that may not understand your industry completely.

    Like Jeanne mentioned, to often we see that someone that does not understand what they are talking about will use the 'buzz words'.

    Excellent article, thank you.

    Michael 24-7 Press Release Newswire

  • Jeanne Byington

    I notice that those who hide behind jargon are often unemployed or are clueless and hope to conceal their lack of understanding with blah blah. A wonderful lawyer still working at a major firm in her 80's asked another lawyer who had just coated a sentence in jargon to translate. We were at a dinner party. What a model she was!

  • Scott Nushart

    Thank you so very much for this post!

    After having just finished a meeting with a client where I was forced to ask a client (tastefully) what the heck a term in their advertising meant (even though I have hired services similar to theirs in the past...), your point is well taken.

    Sorry, folks, I only speak a bit of eight languages, have been in business for four decades, but still don't have a clue about the term on which you are centering your branding!

  • I wish I could anonymously email this article to everyone in my company (I just tweeted it instead). I want to vomit every time I hear someone in the office talk about "incentivizing" (not a real world), "the tenants of marketing" (really, who rents to them?), and my personal favorite: "what keeps me up at night" (looking forward to calling you at 2:00 am to ensure that you're awake and thinking about our customers).