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How To Put Business Jargon In Its Place

Date published: August 05, 2013
Last updated: August 5, 2013

People like to complain about jargon. A lot. This is odd considering that anyone who has a job uses some kind of jargon — specialized vocabulary that is unique to a specific business or industry — every day.

But they really aren’t complaining about jargon in general. They’re complaining about being fed jargon they don’t understand. They’re complaining about a language barrier.

As I see it, jargon comes in two flavors, which I call exclusionary and inclusive jargon.

Exclusionary jargon

Exclusionary jargon is the “bad” jargon. Rarely does it impart more useful information than simpler, plainer speech. Instead, it transmits a message about the speaker: I am a business professional. It’s an easy way to establish one’s qualifications — even for the unqualified.

Exclusionary jargon comes from two different sources.

Corruption of an existing word

Word corruption often involves taking a word from one part of speech and using it as another part of speech — a noun becomes a verb, an adjective becomes a noun and so on:

  • Widgets are no longer designed or built, they are architected.
  • Skills aren’t used (or even utilized), they are leveraged.
  • If you need something from a client, you have an ask instead of a question or request.

Also in this category are words used to obfuscate, to hide either a lack of knowledge or a true but unpleasant fact. For example,

  • It has become improper to say, “Let me ask my manager.” Instead, a customer’s problem is escalated. Really, though, this is just passing the buck.
  • That old software that really ought to be replaced with something better isn’t antiquated, outdated or obsolete, it’s legacy software.
  • A business isn’t trying to sell you a product, it’s offering a solution.

I call this a corruption of existing words, which, yes, shows my bias. If you find some sort of value in this type of jargon, you might describe it as “repurposing existing language to maximize lexical value in a business environment.”

Which is jargon for exactly the same thing.

Creation of a new word or phrase when a perfectly good word already exists

This is what people really think about when they complain about business jargon — pointless new words and phrases that make the speaker sound more businesslike but really add nothing to the language:

  • Instead of having a product to sell for a particular price, companies have deliverables with a price point.
  • Those deliverables aren’t categorized, ordered or sorted, they’re bucketed.
  • Employees come away from meetings not with tasks or even a “to-do list,” but with action items.

Jargon like this reeks of subversion and misdirection, even when none is intended.

Inclusive jargon

Inclusive jargon is the “good” jargon, a business shorthand that encompasses complex ideas and multi-step actions. It’s inclusive because it binds people of the group together to discuss complicated issues. Inclusive jargon is difficult to fake because, given any industry discussion, it will soon become clear if someone really doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

To get away from the negative connotation of jargon, inclusive jargon might better be thought of as an argot — an (often secret) idiom peculiar to a specific group of people. Argots can be extremely useful. For example,

  • A sales funnel is a useful bit of metaphor that encompasses the entire complex array of consumers, from the general public to business leads to prospects to customers, each of which involves a different type of interaction.
  • Organic traffic—something we’re quite concerned with at DigitalRelevance—might sound like something from science fiction, but it’s a useful term in the SEO industry that describes website traffic that is earned without spending money on advertisements. That traffic comes from a lot of places: search engine results pages, blog links, social media referrals and more.

Tune your words to your audience

One aspect of an argot is that it is usually a secret language or idiom, and this is an important aspect to keep in mind. In a business-to-business (B2B) situation, using your industry argot is perfectly acceptable — sometimes it’s expected — because everyone involved is “speaking the same language.”

But that’s where it should end.

In any consumer-facing (i.e., “public” or “business-to-consumer [B2C]”) interaction, that jargon needs to stop. Your industry argot needs to stay in the industry, and you need to switch to plainer, common language.

And remember: Anything you put on the Internet is essentially public.

This is where some businesspeople hit a wall. If you’ve been immersed in an industry and its terminology for a long time, it can sometimes be difficult to step outside that environment and speak about your business to people who know nothing about it.

This is what people complain about. When you speak to the average Joe using your “inclusive jargon,” it stops being inclusive. It blocks communication instead of benefitting it.

It’s dangerous for your argot, too. When industry terms get picked up outside the industry, the general public will redefine and dilute them for their own purposes. (Consider, for example, quantum.)

What can you do about it?

  • Start a banned words list of industry words and phrases that should stay out of the mainstream. Keep it close to hand whenever you write something that will be seen publically.
  • Read good writers on (non-industry) blogs or in magazines. Notice how they explain technical things to non-technical people.
  • Hire an editor, preferably someone from outside the company, to “translate” your posts, pamphlets or what have you into plain language.
  • Run it past your interns, who have been exposed to business-speak but not completely immersed in it. If they don’t understand it, it needs more work.
  • If all else fails, ask someone in your family to read it.

The language you use is like your wardrobe. You wouldn’t wear a suit and tie to the public swimming pool; it just wouldn’t be appropriate. In the same way, it’s fine to dress your language up in industry jargon when you’re conducting internal or B2B communications, but if you’re talking to the public, put on your jeans-and-T-shirt vocabulary.

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