What is jargon? Learn about buzzwords, corporate jargon and “big words,” including why we use these words, their impact (it’s not always negative!) and how we can learn to avoid jargon. Words matter!
Jargon is a word or phrase that is frequently and often unnecessarily repeated, specific to a particular group, and/or gratuitously big. Three types of jargon:
- Popular words or phrases that are used so much that they become meaningless.
- Some buzzwords have been used for years or even decades, like the word “leverage” or the phrase “thinking outside the box.” Some buzzwords are trendy. Consider words or phrases such as “pivot” or “now more than ever.”
Specialist or corporate jargon
- These are the words, phrases or acronyms that are relevant only in a specific context.
- A typical example of this is that you use at work for industry or firm-specific departments, technologies, competencies, or titles.
- BIG WORDS
- These are the unnecessarily long, oftentimes prefix- and suffix-infused words.
- For example: “utilize,” or as David Ogilvy highlights, words that “make you sound like a pompous ass,” such as “reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally.”
THE IMPACT OF JARGON
Jargon can be WRONG
- e.g. “LITERALLY,” as in, “I literally love this!” Literally? As opposed to figuratively, as we learned in English class? I don’t think so. Do you mean you TRULY love this?
It can affect our CREDIBILITY
- When we use jargon, people might perceive that we’re hiding something. Consider politician talk. That’s not a good thing.
It can be DISTRACTING
- Suddenly people are focusing on your jargon instead of your message.
It can also be ALIENATING
- Perhaps our intention was to signal our expertise or the fact that we belong. Unfortunately with some people those, these signals can be alienating.
It can be ANNOYING!!!
- Have you ever been in a meeting when someone uses jargon way too much? And you feel like yelling “STOP! PLAIN LANGUAGE PLEASE!” So yes, it can be annoying!
4 REASONS WE USE JARGON
- BELONGING – Sometimes we use jargon to signal that we belong to a certain group.
- A great example here is teen-agers, who are constantly adopting new vocabulary, teen jargon, that signals their belonging to a generation.
- Employees in an organization do the same thing. Consider an industry conference. The conversations and presentations would be filled with jargon. This jargon serves several purposes, including the fact that t signals you belong with this group. It also signals expertise, which is the second reason we use jargon.
- EXPERTISE – Using jargon can signal your expertise. Simply by using these terms and phrases, you’re implicitly communicating your expertise.
- All else equal, signalling that you belong and signalling your expertise isn’t a bad
- HIDING SOMETHING – Sometimes an individual or an institution may be accused of using jargon to hide something.
- Two examples: legal contracts and politicians.
- LAZINESS –It’s unfortunate, but we also use jargon simply because it is a bad habit. Sometimes our jargon can become a crutch word, a word or phrase that we use almost by default.
HOW CAN WE AVOID Jargon?
Consider your Audience
- When you’re considering your audience, think about whether jargon is appropriate and if so, what kind of jargon.
- This is important advice in general for effective communication. Consider your audience!
Ask for Feedback
- Ask a family member. Do I use any annoying jargon? Also ask a work colleague.
- Make sure they know you truly want to know because you’re trying to clarify your communication.
Record and Listen to Yourself
- Recording and listening to yourself is absolutely the toughest, but also the most effective way to make improvements in your communication and to learn to avoid jargon. (As a podcaster, I catch myself when I’m editing my audio files!)
- David Ogilvy: http://www.listsofnote.com/2012/02/how-to-write.html
- Annoying business buzzwords: https://www.trustradius.com/buyer-blog/annoying-business-buzzwords
- Annoying Buzzwords:
- Political Jargon: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-39418204
Dr. Andrea Wojnicki & Talk About Talk
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Hey there, hope you’re well. In these unprecedented times. How are you managing in this new normal? We all need to stay agile so we can pivot, right? I thought I’d open my kimono and share … I’m literally barely keeping my head above water.
Wait! Don’t press stop. You’re in the right place. I KNOW that opening was annoying. Have you ever heard me talk like that? We’re here to talk about JARGON. Jargon like
- unprecedented times.
- keeping my head above water
- and open my kimono (come on – you KNOW I’m not that sexist and racist, right?)
Greetings and welcome to Talk About Talk. I’m your communication coach, Dr. Andrea Wojnicki (please call me Andrea!).
Whether you’re an ambitious executive, looking to catapult your career by improving your communication skills, or you have a strong growth mindset – you’re always looking to learn and improve your communication skills. Or perhaps both? Well, you’re in the right place.
At Talk About Talk, we focus on communication-skills-topics like imposter syndrome, body language, and personal branding. This is the critically important stuff they don’t teach you in school. It’s also the stuff that becomes increasingly important as you advance in your career. And if you check out the TalkAboutTalk.com website, you’ll find online corporate training, 1-on-1 coaching with me, online courses, the archive of this bi-weekly podcast, and the free weekly communication-skills newsletter. I really hope you’ll go to the website and sign up for the free weekly communication skills training newsletter. But you can choose what works for you!
Welcome to Talk About Talk episode number 85! In this episode, we are focusing on our words. Of course, words matter. Words can inspire, direct, and reveal. They can also distract and annoy. Frankly, there were so many places I could’ve gone here. In future episodes we will cover related topics like our vocabulary in sensitive contexts, being PC or politically correct, violent language, profanity, crutch words, and more. But today, in this episode, we’re focusing on Jargon.
Whether you’re writing an important email, chatting informally in a meeting or giving a formal presentation, it’s worth your time and attention to think about your words, including jargon s.
So in this episode I’ll first define 3 different types of jargon. Then I’ll talk about why we use jargon, And then well get to the good stuff… the prescriptive stuff. How we can OPTIMIZE our communication effectiveness in terms of jargon. Yes, mostly by avoiding jargon. But not always, as you’ll learn.
Are you ready? Let’s get into this. As always, you don’t need to take notes, because I do that for you. I summarize everything for you at the end of the episode. And you can always access the printable episode shownotes on the talkabouttalk.com website. So just keep doing whatever you’re doing – driving or walking or housework, or whatever. And as I said recently, if you’re chilling out of the couch, that’s great too! Regardless of whatever you’re doing, you don’t have to take notes because I do that for you.
I bet you have an idea of what jargon is. You may have even read an article or two about how we should avoid jargon. Or maybe you’ve even been in a situation when someone was using jargon and they got called out for it? Perhaps YOU’ve been called out for it?
Whatever comes to mind for you, I encourage you to think about 3 different types of jargon: (1.) buzzwords, (2.) specialist or corporate jargon, and (3.) big words. Let me elaborate and give you some examples…
First, BUZZWORDS. These are the popular words or phrases that end up getting used so much that they become meaningless. Some buzzwords have been used for years or even decades, like the word “leverage” or the phrase “thinking outside the box”. Some of them are trendy.. Like the words I used in the opening to this episode. I found a Fortune article that lists many of these annoying trendy buzzwords. I wont read you the whole list, but get ready to CRINGE. Here are 12 trendy words or phrases that easily qualify as buzzwords
- Hope you’re well
- Mainstream media
- ‘Trying times’
- ‘now more than ever’
- ‘new normal’
- ‘nice to e-meet you’
- We remain cautious
- ‘we’re all in this together’
I have to add one more. You’ll either cringe or laugh. Its PIVOT. My goodness, if I had a quarter for every time someone said PIVOT over the last 18 months. I could quit my job. Not that I’d ever want to do that. But come on people. Stop pivoting.
So that’s the first type of jargon. BUZZWORDS. The 2nd type of jargon is:
“specialist or corporate jargon.”
These are the words that are relevant only in a specific context. A typical example of this is words, phrases or acronyms that you use at work for industry or firm-specific departments, technologies, competencies, or titles.
Here’s an example of a corporate jargon-filled sentence from my days when I used to work in brand management at Kraft Foods. Are you ready?
When I used to work at KGFC, managers with P&L responsibility would get their APMs and PAs to update S&Cs for quarterly revised forecasts.”
SO that’s the 2nd type of jargon. We’ve got buzzwords and specialist or corporate jargon. The 3rd and last type of jargon?
I call these BIG WORDS.
These are the unnecessarily long, prefix and suffix infused words. DO you know what I’m talking about here? These are the pompous, superfluous words that are completely unnecessary.
My pet peeve here is the word UTILIZE. As in “we plan to utilize our resources for whatever.” “Do you mean USE? You want to USE your resources? Why add two extra syllables there?
I call these “BIG” words. I put BIG in quotes, and if you could see me right now I use air quotes when I say big words. I’m being facetious, because it’s these big words that take away from the power of the message.
There’s a fantastic quote from advertising guru David Ogilvy about these BIG words. Do you know who David Ogilvy is? He was the founder of the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather or O&M. He’s known as the father of advertising. He was also famous for precision with his words. In 1982, he wrote an internal memo to Ogilvy & Mather employees where he said,
“Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are hallmarks of a pretentious ass.”
WHY WE USE THEM
We don’t want to sound like a pretentious ass, do we? So why do we use jargon? Whether it’s buzzwords, corporate jargon, or big words. Why do we say these things? There’s got to be a reason. Actually, there are several valid reasons.
I can think of at least 4: to signal belonging, to signal expertise, to hide something, or simply because it’s a bad habit.
- BELONGING – Sometimes we use jargon to signal that we belong to a certain group.
- A great example here is teen-agers, who are constantly adopting new vocabulary that signals their belonging to a generation. Or we might think of it as signalling their distance from the rest of us.
- Employees in an organization will do the same thing. Or think about industry conferences. Say it’s a mining conference or a capital markets conference or a digital marketing conference. The conversations and presentations would be filled with jargon. This jargon serves several purposes, including the fact that t signals you belong with this group. It also signals expertise…
- EXPERTISE –Do you remember that jargon-filled sentence I shared with you from my days working in brand management at Kraft? “at KGFC, managers with P&L responsibility would get their APMs and PAs to update S&Cs for quarterly revised forecasts.”
- New employees wouldn’t know what and S&C is. By the way, S&C = shipment and consumption. It was a spreadsheet we used for forecasting what we needed to ship from our warehouse, by week, in order to meet demand, or consumption. S&C. Anyway, by using the term, seasoned employees were also implicitly communicating their expertise.
- All else equal, signalling that you belong and signalling your expertise isn’t a bad thing is it? No, of course not. But there is a downside to jargon. For example,
- HIDING SOMETHING – Sometimes an individual or an institution may be accused of using jargon to hide something. Two examples that come to mind for me here are contracts and politicians. Think about the contracts you’re asked to sign. All the jargon there. The privacy disclaimers. The lawyers might say it’s necessary detail. But many of us wonder whether they’re trying to hide something. And sometimes they are.
- Then there’s the politicians. IT’S almost comical when you hear a politician answering a question from a journalist or in a debate. The jargon comes out in full force, with phrases like “let me be very clear”, “tackling the real issues” and “lots of work to be done.” They’re filling the airtime, but not saying anything. And if we’re paying attention, we wonder what they’re hiding? Perhaps it’s the fact that they don’t want to say anything too specific, for fear of being accountable.
- LAZINESS – the 4th and last reason we use jargon is that we’re being lazy. It’s unfortunate, but we also use jargon simply because it is a bad habit. Sometimes our jargon can become a crutch word, a word or phrase that we use almost by default. It’s like a security blanket. By the way, if you ever hear me using jargon or lazy crutch words, please email me!
Generally, we want to avoid jargon. As I said, using jargon to signal expertise or belonging isn’t always a bad thing, but it can be, and certainly language that hides something or that’s just lazy is not a good thing.
Certainly, jargon can impede the clarity of our communication. How so?
- Sometimes they’re just wrong. Like the word LITERALLY. This is a trendy buzzword that’s become synonymous with REALLY or TRULY. Like “I literally love this!” Literally? Really? Like in English class? I don’t think so. Do you mean you TRULY love this? That’s what I thought.
- It can affect our credibility. Like when people perceive that we’re hiding something. You know, politician talk. That’s not a good thing.
- Jargon can also be distracting. Suddenly people are focusing on your jargon instead of your message.
- Jargon can also be alienating. Perhaps our intention was to signal our expertise or the fact that we belong. Unfortunately with some people those, these signals can be alienating.
- So jargon can be wrong, it can detract from our credibility, it can be distracting and it can be alienating. What else?
- It can be ANNOYING!!! Have you ever been in a meeting when someone’s uses jargon way too much? And you feel like yelling “STOP! PLAIN LANGUAGE PLEASE!” So yes, jargon can definitely be annoying!
HOW TO AVOID JARGON
I have a few suggestions.
- First, if you’re writing a speech or an important newsletter, or whatever, consider your audience. This is important advice IN GENERAL for effective communication. Consider your audience. But when you’re considering your audience, think about whether jargon is appropriate and if so, what kind of jargon. Be strategic with your jargon.
- The second thing I suggest you do is ask people. Ask a family member. Do I use any annoying words? Also, ask a work colleague. Make sure they know you really want to know bc you’re trying to clarify your communication.
- You can probably guess the other way to avoid jargon. It’s the toughest to do but absolutely the most effective. RECORD YOURSELF. Recording yourself and listening is absolutely the fastest way to make a change here. I promise you that. As a podcaster, I catch myself when I’m editing my audio files.
BTW, again, all this advice will serve to clean up your jargon, But generally, I promise this will make you a more effective communicator.
The summary for this episode is simple. Pretty clear. Jargon can serve many purposes, some good, some bad. It can signal our expertise and the fact that we belong. With the right people, this can be a good thing. With some people those, these signals can be alienating. Jargon can also be distracting and annoying.
The advice here is to be conscious, to think about our language, our words, and especially of our jargon. Do you remember the 3 types? There’s buzzwords, corporate jargon, and those BIG words. Ask a family member and a colleague if you use jargon, whether you have a habit of using any particular buzzwords. And remember – this is written and verbal. Then try to avoid those words
If you ever catch me using jargon, PLEASE email me and let me know, ok? You can also fill out the contact form on the talkaboutalk.com website.
While you’re there, I really hope you’ll sign up for the Talk About Talk newsletter! This is your chance to get free communication skills coaching from me every week in a simple-to-digest weekly email. Just go to talk abouttalk.com to sign up or email me directly and I’ll add you to the list. You can email me anytime at [email protected]. I’d love to talk!
THANKS for READING – and Talk soon!
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