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Published: March 4, 2008


Speaking of Jargon

But not everyone has an ulterior motive when using jargon, says Anatoly Liberman, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Word Origins…and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone. He believes that people who wield big words and clichés often think that this extravagant language gives the indication that their thoughts are equally large. There’s also an inclination to sanitize language by making it overblown and devoid of any humor or passion. Ostensibly intended to achieve neutrality, such an approach is more likely to eliminate any engagement with the reader or audience.

Eschew Obfuscation
The key to using jargon effectively is to prevent it from crossing the line from useful shorthand to obfuscation. Using functional or organizational jargon can be an easy way to communicate ideas clearly for people who are fluent in those terms and acronyms, but it may lead to confusion for a more general audience. For example, some of the most common terms in business, such as strategy, synergy, and onboarding, have more than one interpretation. Even in the same industry, these terms can mean something different from company to company. Therefore, it’s critical to clarify what is meant: Is “strategy” just the idea or approach to the issue or does it encompass actions as well? Is the employee-onboarding process just the interview, or is it the company’s entire recruiting process? Once the meaning and context of the term is communicated, it will carry specific nuances unique to the organization that more commonly used words might not share.

Even mass jargon isn’t all bad, provided the speaker and audience understand specifically what terms mean. They can become part of a common lexicon within a company or among team members, says Bates. For example, a “blue-sky meeting” may have a different tone or purpose than a typical brainstorming or problem-solving meeting. A “value-add” may have an unspoken set of parameters related to what is possible or desirable based on the company’s resources or abilities.

Getting the Jargon Right
It’s critical, when using any type of jargon, to know when people are getting it and when they’re just nodding their heads, desperately afraid that someone will find out they have no clue what is being said. Dewett recalls a recent classroom experience when one of his more advanced MBA students began talking about “SMEs,” or subject matter experts; the rest of the students said nothing, but began to look quizzical. Dewett noticed and clarified the acronym to the class, which led to audible sighs of relief. The students didn’t want to look unintelligent in front of their peers or professor. Once they understood the acronym, it became a quicker, crisper alternative for the more unwieldy full term.

Another way to gauge whether people are engaged and understanding what you’re saying is by the type of questions you get. If they are nonexistent or off the mark, it could be a clue that your audience doesn’t understand your words. However, if you’re speaking to an audience with a sophisticated comprehension of the topic you’re discussing, not using jargon may backfire, leaving your audience with the feeling that you, quite literally, don’t speak their language.

Although much maligned, jargon does have a place in the well-spoken executive’s vocabulary when it is used effectively to create a deeper level of understanding and trust. Particular words and phrases can become unique shorthand among colleagues within the same industry, company, or team. The key is to use the right words for the right audience in an environment that encourages others to press for clarity when the language is unclear.

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  1. Suzanne Bates, Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (McGraw-Hill, 2005): How to develop a communication style that is both effective and authentic.
  2. Brian Fugere, Chelsea Hardaway, and Jon Warshawsky, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide (Free Press, 2005): Targets clichés and meaningless jargon with aplomb, while making a case for a more plainspoken approach to business communication.
  3. Anatoly Liberman, Word Origins...and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005): An accessible, engaging look at how we determine the origins of our language.
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