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.
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.
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.
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.
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.