The Star Spangled Banner. A simple story of a flag and a battle that seems obscured by poetry. Honestly, it could be edited down to about four sentences. Consider, “Whose broad stripes and bright stars; through the perilous fight; o’er the ramparts we watched; were so gallantly streaming.” Why not just say, “The flag flew over the fort all night”?
Thankfully, my version of the anthem will never catch on, even if it’s set to music. The joy of poetry and song comes from the vivid imagery of a beautiful metaphor, and a clever turn of a phrase. Poetry makes you pause. It makes you ponder. It even allows for varying interpretations. But there’s a place for clear and simple communication. That’s when you’re trying to make yourself understood.
So why do so many business meetings sound like poetry readings?
“At this juncture, are we all in agreement with the need to reach out and touch base concerning the criticality of operationalizing a path forward that will help the team recontextualize the primary pain points in order to delta the optics of the situation? Let’s hold a roundtable that will enable us to dialogue and ideate solutions for tackling the low hanging fruit and move into a space that will leverage the skillsets in our wheelhouse. We need to whiteboard some game changers and noodle over functionality that will dial in the scope of the project. Chime in if you’re not in alignment with the need to utilize existing bandwidth to bifurcate the strategy in order to ramp up the transition and avoid pushback. Why don’t you marinate on this, then drill down and unpack the concept? Provide me some verbiage by EOD that I can wordsmith before we ping the gatekeeper and fly it up the flagpole. Are we PAC?”
I confess, I’ve never personally heard the acronym PAC, which means, according to an Internet jargon dictionary, Perfectly Absolutely Clear. Someone please nominate it for the most ironic acronym ever. And, yes, there are dictionaries full of these words.
Here’s another one: Obfuscate. It means to intentionally confuse. Synonyms include bewilder, perplex, confound, bemuse, and befuddle. Or you could just use this one: overcomplicate. Over reliance on jargon can do all those things. So why is it so prevalent in business?
There are those who seem to feel it’s more sophisticated to substitute a three syllable word like “utilize” in place of its more clear and correct cousin, “use.” And there’s the guy with his favorite metaphor that’s become tired with overuse. I have a colleague who can’t make it through a meeting without saying, “low hanging fruit.” And then there are those whose every sentence is laced with obscurity. Let’s call them Jargonistas. (You’re welcome for this new addition to the dictionary). What’s going on here? Why would anyone in business want to be more difficult to understand?
I’ve got a few theories.
Big fancy words make you feel smarter. It only makes sense that the more you advance in your field, the more you know. So why use words any kindergartener knows to express big business concepts? Why use “look” when “optics” sounds almost…scientific? Using “delta” instead of “change” gives your speech a satisfying mathematical feel. Who isn’t impressed by that? Of course there’s a fallacy here, since communicating with clarity is the ultimate gift to your audience.
Vague phrasing avoids commitment. When you’re asked to “dialogue” rather than talk, or “recontextualize” when something really just needs to be fixed, it’s easy to walk away from the discussion not knowing exactly what’s expected. Cynically, you could say it plays into the hands of the Jargonistas, who can later argue that you didn’t follow up properly. And when that happens, hopefully you’ve practiced keeping the look of “incredulity” off your face.
Once bright little metaphors have become tired cliches. Take “low hanging fruit,” for example. Despite the irony that Jargonistas are unlikely to have ever worked as pickers, the phrase gets the job done. It’s the overuse that brings eye rolls and groans from colleagues. On the other hand, inventing a new metaphor is not for the faint of heart – it potentially opens you up to ridicule if you don’t hit the mark. This is no doubt why people dredge up the tried and true meeting after meeting.
Using insider words makes you an insider. Humans form bonds around common attributes like fashion, sports, culture, and, of course, language. When people in the same circle are conversing, they will consciously and unconsciously match each other’s speaking patterns, tone, and vocabulary. Those wanting to fit in with the group will naturally pick up words and phrases used by its leaders. Common language is verbal dress for success in the workplace.
Speaking and writing for understanding is an art. It requires thoughtful word choice, vigorous editing, and a respect for your audience. That doesn’t mean dumbing things down or limiting your vocabulary. It does mean making your ideas shine, and allowing your message to take center stage. Clean up your words, Jargonistas – obfuscation and befuddlement are the enemies of good communication.