Jargon – Symptoms and Home Treatment

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On a conference call last week with a potential client, I was again confronted with a disease that plagues businesspeople: Excessive Use of Industry Jargon. This is a serious disease that often goes unreported. It’s time to bring it out into the open and talk about it.

Because the majority of my professional experience has been spent practicing PR and marketing communications, I’ve seen many cases of this condition. But today what I wanted to address are some of the possible reasons why it continues to plague businesspeople. It’s an insidious condition that infects people without regard to age, gender, level of education, race, color, or creed. You may even carry this disease yourself without realizing it. That’s OK, the diagnosis and cures are both simple and can be done in the privacy of your own home. But first:

Who is prone: this disease is borne out of either insecurity, or a kind of boastful pride (the same kind that infects schoolyard bullies and information hoarders). The afflicted believe that if they hold esoteric knowledge and don’t share it, then they are members of an elite club. They have heard (but misinterpreted) the phrase “knowledge is power,” and misunderstood it to mean that “knowledge is power … when that knowledge is not shared with others.” If that were true, then teachers would be unquestioningly the most powerful people in the world, and none of you would have learned anything in school.

Jargon and buzzwords are words and phrases that appear within organizations and industries and are used to describe products, services and unique characteristics of that group. The key thing to remember is that they are a form of shorthand, and do not instantly make sense to people outside the group. Everyone is guilty of this. It may be the most prevalent disease in business. For example,

  • Journalists talk about “ledes” instead of introductory sentences
  • Hotel people talk about “rack rates” instead of standard prices 
  • Ad sales people talk about “avails” instead of available space
  • Graphic designers talk about “mock-ups” instead of prototype designs
  • Marketing people talk about “The Creative” instead of the art concept

  • Biologists talk about “macro-invertebrates” instead of insects 
  • Corporate trainers talk about “staff augmentation” instead of … well, I still have no idea what this means in plain language

You get the point. Your industry has its own terms just like these. 

It is important to note that there are times when use of jargon is totally appropriate. Feel free to use it at meetings of other employees in your group who know these phrases and their meanings. But don’t use it in public. Don’t use it on a sales call. You might think it makes you sound like an expert, but it really just confuses your audience.

The Symptoms: self-detection is difficult. But you may have noticed these signs in others… Use of buzzwords, industry terms and three-letter acronyms (“TLA’s”). Audience members seem confused, isolated and distant. Quizzical looks from others following your talk.

Home Treatment: first, learn to think like a teacher. Observe your audience. Look for nonverbal cues – a furrowed brow, a confused expression, total silence on the other end of the phone – because your audience may not be confident enough to ask for clarification of your buzzwords and jargon. Ask simple questions like, “do you understand what I mean when I said ‘Price Point’?” And then of course you need to define the term and confirm understanding. (by the way, “price point” is just a lengthy way to say “price” …)

With effective home treatment, the prognosis is good. Anyone can learn to use clear, plain language to get their point across. If you manage to correct this condition, others will find you more personable, more effective and more likable.

And who doesn’t want that?

(The Change Agent is Brian Sibley. Follow him on Twitter @bsibley)

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