The Great Jargon Throw Down
Colin Rigley

Jargon is everywhere. In a lot of ways, it is the language that drives business: a common vernacular that separates those in the know from those who don’t know. There’s just one teeny tiny little problem: No one knows what the hell you’re talking about when you use it. It is an inherently prohibitive way of speaking and writing and, in that way, it is an ineffective way of communicating and collaborating.

We know for a fact that jargon can be detrimental to communication. Researchers at New York University, for example, found that people are more likely to think someone is lying when he uses abstract language rather than concrete language. In other words, when you fall prey to jargon and clichés, your audience does not have enough real, factual information to absorb and respond to. You might say it’s as trustworthy as your neighborhood astrologer or psychic. A lot of words get used, but not much is said.

As Maddie Crum described in an article for the Huffington Post:

“When we replace a specific task with a vague expression, we grant the task more magnitude than it deserves. If we don’t describe an activity plainly, it seems less like an easily achievable goal and more like a cloudy state of existence that fills unknowable amounts of time [emphasis mine].”

Or, as author Phil Simon said in a recent interview on the subject, “Thanks to far too much email and loads of jargon, business communication simply doesn’t work in many instances these days.”

By its very definition, jargon is “a confused, unintelligible language.” Yet we tend to think of jargon as highly specialized language among experts in a given field—as though they must have profound insight because they have access to insider language. The opposite is often more apt in business, where a multitude of people with different skills must work toward a common goal. Jargon is not highly specialized. It is intentionally oblique in a way that sounds good or professional, but in most ways undermines the very message it seeks to communicate. Consider that it takes twice as long to use a full, proper organization or team name than it does to first use the acronym, then define that acronym’s meaning. Or imagine how the public would have responded if, instead, Kennedy had said “ask not what your country can do for you, but how you can utilize your bandwidth to move the needle for your country by EOD”?

Think of the most jargony person you know. He or she is probably capable of rattling off a few hundred words that sound profound and appear brilliant, but on retrospect you have a fuzzy idea of what was actually said. Social psychology researchers have actually studied this phenomenon and discovered that, yes, jargon or “abstract language” can make someone seem powerful or authoritative because they linguistically dance around specifics. According to an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Those interested in being perceived as more powerful may therefore be well served to talk in terms of the forest rather than the individual trees.” (Even in describing this psychological quirk, the researchers relied on a cliché.)

This is not to say that people who use abstract language and jargon are dumb or that people who use concrete, specific language are inherently smart. But it does mean that it’s easier to sort the good ideas from the bad ones when the presenter speaks directly. Clear, direct language serves a simple purpose: to communicate so we can get work done. Jargon, acronyms, and business clichés muck up the message and force us to first decipher what work we actually need to do. Just about everyone is susceptible to jargon. The problem is that the unnecessary language we rely upon to sound “smarter” makes it more difficult to communicate what we actually mean.

Free and open dialogues are all the rage these days, and with good reason. When people communicate openly and operate in a transparent workplace, they open up the flow of information. And the lack of communication can be detrimental to your bottom line. Indeed, 86 percent of employees attribute workplace failures to a lack of collaboration. I would bet that the way people speak and write has a significant impact on how they collaborate. And the good news is that direct communication does not require more work—it actually requires less. Consider speaking to your coworkers the way you would to someone outside your office or career field. Because you want a dialogue to take place, not a one-way lecture in which one person is confused.

It can be difficult, at first, but the reward for breaking free from your jargon is to communicate with other actual, real-life human beings. The worst that can happen is someone understands you.