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Jargon: It Creates a Wall Between Managers and Employees

A pink megaphone with question marks coming out of it.
They are overused terms that make people roll their eyes, tune out, wince or nod off. "Shift the paradigm." Take a "solution-oriented approach." "Empower your brand." Or perhaps buzzwords like "agile," "actionable" or "the new normal."

Call it corporate speak or business lingo, jargon is ubiquitous in leadership presentations, memos and blogs in every industry. Yet it's counterproductive, especially for managers whose effectiveness depends on being accessible, persuasive and inspiring to employees.

Jargon puts up a wall, said Katherine Spivey, co-chair of the Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN), a group of federal employees who provide communication support and training for government workers. Using terms unfamiliar to your readers or audience can seem noninclusive and even divisive, she said. It's as if a manager is saying: "I know things. You don't know things."

Any communication rife with buzzwords can also come across as disingenuous. What strategy isn't "results-oriented"? When announcing a layoff, no one will be fooled by a memo about "eliminating redundancy." Responding to an employee concern with "We don't have the bandwidth" will be heard as a buzzy, evasive dismissal.

Ultimately, a presentation to employees that they don't understand or that is packed with meaningless phrases is a communication failure. The popularity of Dr. Anthony Fauci as America's explainer-in-chief during the pandemic is proof that plain-speaking wins. As the primary spokesperson for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci became beloved and trusted for his straight talk. His ability to distill complex data into concise, easy-to-follow guidance made him the leading COVID-19 authority and did not diminish his scientific credibility.

Acronyms fall under the jargon umbrella as well. "DE&I" may roll off the tongue of an executive, but that employee in food services may not know you mean diversity, equity and inclusion. Or consider that NEA could stand for National Education Association, National Endowment for the Arts or Nuclear Energy Agency.

Using big words does not make you sound smarter, either. In fact, it usually has the opposite effect, said Peter Cardon, professor of clinical business communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "The first impression is that [the speaker] is trying to sound impressive." You build credibility by connecting with your audience, not by trying to elevate yourself through fancy terms, he said.

At best, jargon is an efficient shorthand for communicating with people in your close circle. Some professions have their own version, like legalese or academese. You can use acronyms, in-the-weeds technical terms and obscure references with abandon because your colleagues get it. "When everyone understands, it's fantastic," Cardon said.

But not everyone always understands.

"People are processing the information in real time," Cardon said. "If they don't know what a term means, you can lose someone in a moment."

But what if you try to explain the technical terms? A study by Ohio State University researchers found that people were less interested and informed after reading jargon-filled samples—even when terms were defined—than another group reading a plain-language version. When staff glaze over stuffy or pretentious language, managers miss the opportunity to convey their message.

Buzzwords can be the result of laziness. It may be easier to drop a hackneyed term like "synergy" or "value chain" rather than explaining what you mean. But you can improve an empty phrase by adding specifics and nuance. If you talk about "moving the needle," provide statistics, said Mary Cullen, a business writing trainer, executive coach and president at Instructional Solutions in Princeton, N.J.

Jargon can even damage your credibility by skipping over issues that deserve more thought.

Cardon is suspicious of presenters who prefer to "focus on the low-hanging fruit." This reduces a problem to an easy fix and ends the conversation, he said, when a more substantive solution to a complicated problem may be warranted.

And chances are, that "one-off situation" isn't, said Rachel Loock, about attempts to minimize problems with a pat phrase. Loock coaches executive MBA students at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

Above all, managers can't risk a covert eye roll when they're speaking to employees. "When people start using terms sarcastically and it becomes a punchline, it's time to stop," Spivey said. Don't talk about a "value-added service" if it's no different than others on the market. "Unprecedented times" may be ready for cancellation, too.

Plain-Speaking Advice

When you work in the same industry for years, "jargon falls out of your mouth without [your] thinking," Loock said.

But consider how daunting this jargon may be for a new or early-career employee, Loock continued. She suggests that HR provide a glossary of common terms and acronyms in their onboarding packet to familiarize new employees with the organization's lingo.

Better yet, be a thought leader (another term to use with caution) and kick the jargon habit. More tips:

  • Watch or review your previous presentations, blogs and memos. See what worked and what didn't, Cardon said.

  • "Engage your readers, don't write at them," Cullen said. This means talking in their language. Choose words like "thinking," not "ideation." Call it a "report," not a "deliverable."
  • Make text easy to scan. "Fillers and puffy language get in the way," Spivey said. Delete "At the end of the day."
  • Avoid acronyms by spelling them out. Discuss KPI with your executive team, but be aware that other staffers may not know that you mean key performance indicators.

  • Check in during your presentation break, Loock suggested. Ask if everyone is following or if anything isn't clear.

  • Finally, remember that "blue sky thinking" will not take you to "where the rubber meets the road." 

    As the wisdom goes, "think outside the box."

    Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.


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