Bart Egnal, chief executive officer of leadership communications consultancy the Humphrey Group, recalls one of his clients telling him the company needed to become an agile organization. "What does that mean?" he asked. The client sheepishly admitted: "Nobody knows."
It was an example of the jargon that runs through business discourse, words that primarily prevent rather than facilitate communications. Whoops – facilitate may itself be jargon. Let's change that to assist.
Jargon isn't always bad. In an investment meeting, the abbreviation EPS, as a substitute for saying earnings per share, can be helpful. "It's a way to cut time and get to the point," he said in an interview. But sometimes abbreviations and acronyms can be confusing – he points to a course he was teaching where one person understood CSR to mean customer service representative while another thought he was talking about corporate social responsibility.
Jargon can also distance people from one another. He notes that newcomers to a firm often won't understand the shorthand – one estimate is that 50 per cent of what they hear is not properly comprehended – but are afraid to admit their ignorance.
It's not uncommon to hear people complain about jargon but like the weather, nobody does anything about it. Except for Mr. Egnal. He names the villain – leaders like you – and calls upon corporate executives to clean up their act. As a start, in his book Leading through Language, he provides a continuum of jargon, running from the useful and benign through to the ineffective and damaging:
Shorthand jargon: This consists of the acronyms or short terms that can be beneficial when the speaker knows everybody truly is on the same page, like EPS at an investors' meeting. The benefit is quicker, faster communications.
Shared identity jargon: This is the kind of distinct language that every profession and industry has and using it effectively can bring people together, creating a sense of belonging. Football fans know what a "Hail Mary" pass is. Readers of leadership guru Jim Collins – which covers many folks in the executive suite – know what "getting the right people on the bus" means for strategy. "It can be corporate-speak, but when there is common understanding, it can be powerful," Mr. Egnal said in the interview.
Assumption-driven jargon: This is jargon that is a product of the speaker's inaccurate assumptions about the audience's understanding. It's not intentional, but if people don't admit they don't understand it – and they typically won't since that's embarrassing – they'll be left in the dark. "If you want to lead, it's your responsibility to know if your words are being understood," he notes. This category sits at the middle of his jargon continuum, between benign and ineffective.
Inflation jargon: Here the speaker replaces simple, clear language with overblown, impressive-sounding words. A merger is described as "synergistic," for example. The executive urging increased sales says "on a going-forward basis, we need to grow sales to maximize our potential." Yes, it might make you sound more knowledgeable but it creates barriers with the listener. It sits squarely on the ineffectiveness section of his continuum.
Lack of clarity jargon: This is used to paper over a lack of precise thinking, as with the agile corporate strategy. This differs from assumption-driven jargon as here the speaker actually doesn't have a clear sense of what the jargon means. Nor does the audience, which must guess. It lies somewhere between ineffective and damaging on the continuum.
Obfuscation jargon: This is designed to intentionally baffle and confuse an audience. The next time your credit card explains a rate increase will be a good example – words that you can't decipher, written for that purpose. Layoff notices are another example. He shares the phrase "we're going to release you to the market" as an executive tells an employee he is being "laid off," itself a common smokescreen for being fired. This may protect the obfuscator in the short term, but ultimately it's damaging.
Instead, be clear in what you want to say. Try to keep your speech jargon free – "the benefits of jargon are fully outweighed by the negative," he says. Yes, your business may be complicated, but look at Steve Jobs, who described the iPhone not by its impressive technical specifications but as "An iPad. A phone. And an Internet communicator." No doubt he had to use some internal jargon with his design team but he knew his audience and how to get his message across simply.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter