A report on business communications practices by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) earlier this year underlined something many of us already knew from first-hand experience: a lot of employees instinctively dislike business jargon, and wish colleagues and bosses used less of it.
According to Fenella Grey, a PR agency managing director with the survey’s co-authors Poter Novelli, the findings show that “When a company or an executive chooses buzzwords over straight talk, they risk losing respect, trust and, crucially, an opportunity to turn members of the public into supporters.
“People want to be told things straight, and that includes hearing about what businesses do and why,” she told industry analyst site Economia.
On the surface, of course, that sounds like a no-brainer. So why are many sectors still apparently struggling to cut it out?
The ‘in’ crowd
Despite being something most of us love to hate, business jargon does occasionally have its uses. In the right environment, it can be downright helpful – but only ever in certain, very specific circles.
Marketing, for example, is often accused of being among the most jargon-happy fields of the wider business world. And, as many in that trade would tell you, a light smattering of jargon dropped in the right place at the right time can be a shorthand way of showing (genuine) sector knowledge and expertise with the issues at hand.
The problem lies in recognising those relatively rare opportunities.
John Cammidge, a UK-based marketing consultant who specialises in training clients to handle their own campaigns, often dictates entire sessions to ‘keeping it simple’ – a significant part of which involves watching for doublespeak. As he puts it, “the key thing to remember in any marketing-related communication, office-based or external, is your target audience: they entirely define when and where it’s ok to use jargon, and where it’s best avoided.”
While that also sounds like a no-brainer, Cammidge says, it’s often less easy to judge than his clients initially think. This is partly because, when deployed correctly among a group you’re confident will know precisely what you’re talking about, jargon can help make your communications far more specific and efficient.
“Again, that’s often very useful for the audience – if it’s the right audience,” he cautions. “Flaunt it in front of the wrong people, though, and it’s immediately alienating precisely because it tends to be so sector-specific.“
Worse yet, for an audience unfamiliar with insider speak, you risk giving the precise opposite impression to the one you intended: to them, you’re effectively saying nothing, and taking forever to do it. In those scenarios, critical audiences will often assume your use of jargon is a deliberate tactical cover-up – a forlorn bid to mask a lack of any solid information.
One field of jargon and business-speak that’s faced increasingly heavy scorn in recent years – particularly thanks to the rise of Silicon Valley, and the ubiquity of the slick boardroom stereotypes we’ve created around it – is the ever-changing roster of corporate buzzwords.
There’s a strange contradiction lurking at the heart of such business doublespeak: sample surveys frequently suggest that most workers detest it, and yet it keeps being generated (and used) at a horrifying rate. Moreover, an increasing number of analysts and commentators are starting to suggest that jargon and buzzwords may in fact be bad for business in many cases.
Every industry has its shortcuts, lingo, acronyms and so on. Again, in the right circles, that’s absolutely fine – helpful, even. The real danger to businesses lies in using it…well, outside the box, as it were.
For one thing, if it’s potentially alienating for certain colleagues and co-workers, imagine how off-putting it sounds to the majority of customers. It’s always worth being mindful of this when spinning out any familiar industry phrases in environments where they might look out of place: just because nobody’s asking ‘what do you mean?’, that’s no guarantee they’re not thinking it.
In fact, casually assuming a certain level of prior knowledge is one of the main risk factors in losing an audience to buzz-speak. If you’re in any doubt as to what level of expertise you’re dealing with, always err on the side of caution: it’s far less irritating to read a one-line definition of a phrase or acronym you already know than it is to need repeated help from a Googled glossary.
A lot of hot air?
Interestingly, some industry commentators have noted that buzzword booms tend to take place in a productivity vacuum, which may help explain why so many people mistrust business jargon and are highly suspicious of anyone caught using it.
As Andre Spicer, author and professor at Cass Business School, told The Guardian newspaper earlier this year, this widespread mistrust has a lot to do with the fact that so many people feel their own jobs are essentially meaningless these days.
“When we move from producing goods and services to making things look good – an economy of persuasion – we often get this boom in jargon”, says Spicer. Wherever there’s a business climate or culture that creates ‘pseudo-experts’, he claims, groups tend to develop their own jargon to imply a set of non-existent credentials.
One obvious way to avoid being accused of the latter, of course, is to avoid using any unfamiliar jargon without having absolute confidence in its precise meaning and proper usage. Remember, there are few things people enjoy more than exposing a fraud, and particularly a blowhard one: regardless of the audience or context, anyone caught ham-fistedly wielding pretentious technical terms will soon find themselves in an uphill battle to retain a shred of the credibility they walked in with.
The irony of marketing speak
In the world of business marketing specifically, a striking contradiction can often be observed in day-to-day activities. As noted above, it’s an environment littered with acronyms, jargon and doublespeak – and yet these tend to be inherently poor choices for mass communication, both in terms of direct customer engagement and SEO.
Despite this, business marketing professionals across all sectors can frequently be overheard using needlessly complex phrasing to outline the simplest of concepts. Notorious examples we’re all familiar with these days include the rampant overuse of terms like ‘leverage’, ‘actionable’ and ‘scalable’.
These widely despised buzzwords are instantly recognisable now, having become a sort of cultural in-joke. Much harder to spot, though, is the more insidious creep of needless padding into everyday business-speak: how many times, for instance, does the average office chat or email include words like ‘utilise’ when it simply means ‘use’, or ‘action’ when ‘do’ would do?
This phenomenon is witnessed a lot more often in large corporations than in small businesses, principally because there are a lot more resources available to waste on it in. And, notes Spicer, it’s sometimes more nefarious than that: in many such environments, it can often be used as “a way of avoiding an issue so key issues get covered up”.
Quick tips for avoiding jargon overload
As already noted, one good way in which communicators across all formats and sectors can avoid coming unstuck is to remain mindful of the audience make-up, and to ensure that technical terms are fully and precisely understood by all parties before they’re used.
If there’s any doubt over either of these key variables, it’s generally safer to go with a longhand or less technical or version. Prior knowledge shouldn’t be assumed on behalf of others.
It’s also helpful for speakers – or emailers – to really think about what’s being said, and whether or not any jargon adds to it in a meaningful way. In some cases, the answer will be yes. However, just as often, industry buzzwords don’t add anything of value (especially if it’s a relatively simple concept being conveyed).
In terms of being on the receiving end of jargon overload, it pays to remember that overly ‘buzzy’ speak often serves to mask uncertainty, particularly when it looks like an attempt to minimise discomfort or avoid tackling problems head-on.
In those cases, it can often be helpful to avoid calling it out directly, but to return to the points raised with the jargon-user afterwards – perhaps over a coffee, in a quieter or less pressured environment – and, to use another infamous doublespeak phrase, really ‘drill down’ into the issues on a one-to-one basis.