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Writers and leaders alike have been bemoaning the problem of buzzwords and jargon for years now. But, despite the slew of click-bait blog posts on “words to stop using” or admonishments about relying on “business-speak” as a stand-in for real ideas, we haven’t had much progress. And there may be good reason for that.
How to keep communication fresh in long-term change.
Jargon can serve an important and necessary function in language. Jargon and its use helps to define groups, either by profession (legal, medical, or technology) or by mind-set (a Silicon Valley start-up versus a blue-chip investor). These groups use language to define themselves and help them to recognize their own. Besides being a part of a group’s brand, jargon is also often a useful style of shorthand that allows experts in a narrow field to converse quickly. So why is jargon bad for business?
Why is Jargon bad for business?
But, as useful as jargon (and its more insidious cousin, buzzwords) can be for defining membership in a particular tribe and giving that tribe an easy way to discuss complex ideas, it is killing innovation. And, clearly, telling people that they have actually become unintelligible is no longer enough. We have to give those fluent in jargon more than admonishments: we have to give them a motivation and an alternative.
All innovation is dependent on the exchange and cross-pollination of ideas. And for that to happen, non-experts must have pathways into understanding complex things, like new technologies, social problems, and medical conditions. If experts can’t give non-experts and lay people a basic understanding, they fundamentally stop the exchange of ideas.
A lot of innovation consultants will advocate for crowd sourcing and that often conjures up the image of the janitor or intern coming up with a breakthrough idea that saves the company. And that could happen. But, a much more likely source of innovation is getting two or more experts in different fields together and having them compare their ideas and experiences. For instance:
- A medical researcher and a technologist who collaborate to create a new way to manage diabetes care.
- A film director and financial management expert who produce a program to educate and motivate consumers to make smart investments.
- A process engineer and a chef who create new menu items exclusively from components that are already in the supply-chain.
In each of these cases, both participants brought deep expertise–and probably some jargon–to the table. Remember, in the context of each participant’s specialized group—that is among other experts in the same field—their use of jargon is fine. But, when the participants are asked to collaborate with outsiders, the jargon becomes a barrier to sharing information and ideas.
Some people may feel that jargon gives them specificity that more simple language lacks, and thus makes their ideas clearer. But, that’s rarely the true result. Rather than making ideas clear and understood, out of context jargon makes ideas opaque and confusing.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger and more complex… It takes a touch of genius— and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” – Albert Einstein
An alternative to jargon
So, if you’re ready to drop the jargon habit, here are some concrete steps you can take.
The first step to solving any problem is awareness. Look at your own writing, listen to your words, and ask yourself: “was that jargon?” If it was, ask yourself if it was appropriate use (in context, with right audience, adding meaningful nuance) or if it could have been replaced with a more common word or term. For instance, when speaking to other medical professionals, referencing “A1C” in diabetes care is absolutely appropriate, but when talking to a developer, the term “blood sugar” would be clearer.
Explain it to a fourth grader
Sometimes, jargon is used unwittingly. The “curse of knowledge” sometimes prevents experts from speaking clearly to non-experts because experts no longer remember what it was like to be a novice or outsider. A useful exercise to overcome this curse of knowledge is to imagine explaining the topic to fourth grader. Fourth graders know a lot about the world and how it works, but they don’t have the same level of education and sophistication as adults. Think about what words, metaphors, and examples you would use or omit?
Make a picture
If a picture is worth a thousand words, it might be worth a million buzzwords. Instead of a “multi-disciplinary, cross platform solution that leverages next-generation synergies to create a customer-centric mindset” try sketching something this:
In a one-on-one conversation or an enormous convention, it’s never wrong to ask your audience if they get what you’re saying. They will often tell you yes, so don’t believe them. Instead, ask if you’re going to slow or if they want you to skip the explanation. You’ll rarely find someone who doesn’t value a slightly slower, more in-depth and contextual explanation.
When in doubt, go simple
Language is full of words. Millions of ‘em. And a large and agile vocabulary can be an asset in clear communication—selecting the right word can help add color and meaning to your message. But your primary word choice filter should be simplicity. Don’t pick a ten-dollar word when a nickel one will do. A great example of this is “utilize.” Utilize has crept into every day usage, and if you don’t already know, I want to be the first to tell you that there is no reason. “Utilize” doesn’t bring more to the table than “use”—except four extra letters. And yet perfectly reasonable people continue to use (utilize) it. Perhaps they think it makes them sound more technical, more official. But it’s unnecessary, and when I become supreme leader, it will be banned.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” – Albert Einstein
Plain language matters—all the time
In the examples I gave earlier, I talked about experts working with experts in other fields for the express purpose of innovating. And those are settings where it is imperative to leave your jargon behind and show up with clear and plain language to facilitate effective idea exchange. But, it’s not the only time that plain language helps. In fact, you should plain language all the time. You never know which conversations will spark ideas, start a creative brainstorm, or inspire a colleague. So, don’t just bring your good communication skills to innovation meetings—bring them to all your meetings, your reports, your emails—everything. Only use jargon when you know the only audience is in-group and using simple explanations would lose nuance in translation. Otherwise, strive for clear communication at all times—and watch your ideas and projects become more innovative.
Up next: Should plain language be a part of my brand?