Stop Speaking in Jargon

Too often, business people communicate in jargon and buzzwords. They’d be more effective if they spoke in plain English


Inspiring business communicators speak in clear, understandable language. The language of motivation is free of meaningless gibberish. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way the wheels came off, and business professionals began speaking in vague terms that fail to connect with listeners. The other week I read a magazine interview with an analyst who had been asked about his forecast for technology spending in 2008. His reply: “Expect commoditized processes to be optimized and varying instances to be consolidated and standardized on middleware platforms.” Words like “optimized,” “commoditized,” and “standards” are buzzwords that mean nothing to most listeners, but the use of such language does serve a purpose-to elevate a person in his own mind. Wikipedia says “buzzwords are typically intended to impress one’s audience with the pretense of knowledge.”

Anyone who thinks using buzzwords will make them sound intelligent is wrong. Clarity impresses. Buzzwords confuse.

Don’t get me wrong. Some jargon serves a purpose. Intuit  founder Scott Cook once reminded me that using jargon isn’t bad if it’s understood by your audience. For example, if a chief financial officer is speaking to investors, then EPS (earnings per share) is acceptable jargon. It’s “customer-preferred.” But in most cases where persuasion must take place, like selling a product to a customer or an idea to your boss, a compelling discussion should be largely free of jargon. Your goal as the speaker is to help listeners follow your message, not to leave them more confused. Here are several ways to make sure you are understood.

Answer the No. 1 Question

On my first day of journalism school at Northwestern, I was taught to answer the one question on the minds of my readers: What’s in it for me? Your pitch or presentation might have impressive data, eye-popping charts, and compelling case studies, but if it’s not clear how your product or service improves the lives of your listeners, you will lose their attention and their business.

A recent Dilbert cartoon poked fun at the hot buzzword in technology these days, “server virtualization.” It’s comical to hear IT (information technology) professionals explain it. Dilbert creator Scott Adams does as a good a job as anyone. Dilbert’s boss has read about virtualization in a magazine and instructs Dilbert to get right on it. In one strip, the boss is told, “there is no need to worry about the server virtualization project. In phase one, a team of blind monkeys will unplug unnecessary servers. In phase two, the monkeys will hurl software at whatever is left. Voilà!”

The actual definition is very confusing. Imagine trying to promote server virtualization throughout a company by saying, “Server virtualization is the masking of server resources, including the number and identity of individual physical servers, processors, and operating systems, from server users.” That’s a technically accurate definition but so full of jargon that it is meaningless to most people. Now imagine if an IT professional told the CEO, “I’d like to show you how we can save money on our energy bills by consolidating our sprawling server farms into fewer pieces of hardware.” What’s the difference? This version answers the question, What’s in it for me? (in this case, for the CEO and the company). Answer the No. 1 question quickly and clearly.

Paint Verbal Pictures

WMware, a leading consulting company specializing in virtualization, has launched a Web site called Ain’t That the Truth, which provides examples of how much money and energy a company can save by “virtualizing” their servers with VMware technology. With the help of a “savings calculator,” the site offers a visual representation of the benefits.

For example, if a company virtualized its 100 servers, the calculator shows that it could reduce more than 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, the equivalent of planting nearly 5,000 trees, taking 250 cars off the road, and eliminating the emissions from nearly 500 cows. (Yes, the calculator tracks cow emissions. How’s that for a visual?) And the company saves more than $153,000 in server-related energy costs.

VMware’s site succeeds because it takes a complex technology and paints a vivid picture of the benefits. You must do the same in your discussions. Replace buzzwords and jargon with tangible examples, analogies, comparisons, and real-world case studies to paint a verbal picture for your listeners.

Find the “Wow”

Meaningless jargon and buzzwords are so common they have become a national joke. On a YouTube clip from NBC’s The Office, the former temp turned boss, Ryan Howard, explains a new initiative this way: “It’s convergence, viral marketing, we’re going guerrilla. We’re taking it to the street while keeping an eye on the street. I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It is what it is.” Funny, yes. But you hear this kind of thing all too often. Eliminate overused language or esoteric jargon from most of your conversations, especially with listeners who don’t live and breathe your field.

I was once helping a CEO prepare for a major investment conference. I asked him how he planned to describe his company for analysts. Without flinching, he said: “Our company is the premier developer of intelligent semiconductor intellectual-property solutions that dramatically accelerate complex SOC designs while minimizing risk.” At that point, I knew it was going to be a very long day. I kept urging him to simplify his message by asking him to “wow” me.

After 30 minutes, the exasperated CEO turned to me and said, “Look, do you have a cell phone?” “I sure do,” I replied. “Our technology makes cell phones that are smaller, have longer battery life, and allow you to do fun things on your phone like play music and video.” Now there’s the wow. The difference, of course, is that he eliminated industry-specific jargon. He also won over his audience.

“A Touch of Genius and a Lot of Courage”

We can put an end to jargon-filled communications, but it will take commitment. Some people are afraid to make the change. Financial guru Suze Orman once told me, “People criticize simplicity because they need to feel as though the topic is more complicated. If everything were so simple, they think their jobs could be eliminated. It’s our fear of extinction, our fear of elimination, our fear of not being important that leads us to communicate things more than we need to.”

Albert Einstein once said: “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.” Let’s be courageous and put our ideas into plain language we can all understand.

Source: Business Week


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