From USPs to pitches and RFPs: Management jargon has become a status symbol. Is complex language necessary – or is it time to drill down?
Body language experts reckon that most meaning is conveyed through gestures. But if you want to get your message across, it’s usually best to use words. Outlining next year’s sales strategy using hand signals and facial expressions alone might see your career suddenly derailed.
The problem with words is that, in business, there is a rising number of meaningless ones. Management jargon ranges from hackneyed words (“we need a holistic approach”) and acronyms (“what’s our USP?”, “We’ve received five RFPs”) to euphemisms (“I’ll just run this one up the flagpole”).
While it rankles many when colleagues and clients revert to using jargon, there may be a case for it. Except, when jargon is useful it has another name – terminology.
Peter Sandbach is a PR man who cut his teeth in large healthcare and agrochemicals companies. He now runs his own agency, Free Range Communications.
Sandbach draws a distinction between technical information and jargon: “Terminology is used by experts or a specific knowledge group as a shortcut,” he says. “In areas like science, engineering, pharma, or finance, sector specific terms are used to speed things up.”
The problem comes when language like this is used to isolate, bamboozle or mask a lack of competence. This, according to Sandbach is when technical terms become jargonised. “It can spread through an organisation and isolate people,” he says. “People pretend to know what other people mean – but don’t. And worse, they start using it themselves.”
This scenario – where executives parrot nonsense to one another in a cacophony of meaningless chatter – sounds like a postmodernist nightmare. Neither is it a welcome proposition for investors or leaders.
The commercial cost of corporate gibberish is becoming better understood and more organisations are acting against it. The UK Labour Party, once notorious for its use of political jargon, has an online glossary for canvassing volunteers who find themselves catapulted into an environment where bewildering language is the norm. The Campaign for Plain English is an activist group in favour of simple communication. The initiative was founded in 1979 after its firebrand founder, Chrissie Maher, publicly shredded some impenetrably written government documents in Parliament Square, London. The organisation provides training and consultancy for companies, institutions and councils, awarding those who are sufficiently plain-speaking with a kitemark.
For business leaders, there is an increasing number of specialised language consultancies that help root out corporate claptrap. On the front line of this fight is The Writer, an agency with offices in London and New York. Through training programmes, workshops and copywriting services, it helps clients get their message across more adroitly. Creative director Charli Nordone sees the operational cost of jargon when she consults with clients. She recounts an occasion when a corporate client had decided to introduce a period of “operational excellence”. The initiative had almost no impact. Meanwhile, a separate division had rebranded the effort “doing everyday things better”. The result was an uptick in productivity and quality. “Meaningless phrases don’t inspire action of any kind,” she says, “for employees to take more initiative or try harder, or for people to become – or stay – customers.”
There is an insidious side to jargon, when corporations use euphemisms to make corrupt actions sound less offensive. Journalist-turned teacher Lucy Kellaway first turned her attention to this sort of language in 1994, and before she switched careers, her yearly (and fictional) Golden Flannel awards in the Financial Times called out the worst in business bullshit. She draws attention to carmaker Ford referring to firings as “people efficiency actions”. Worse perhaps is the language gig economy companies use to sidestep employment laws and regulations. An internal memo by food delivery service Deliveroo gives a rundown of language that staff ought to use to describe delivery workers. They aren’t “employees”, but “independent suppliers”. This naming bars them from rights enjoyed by most workers.
Research in recent years also shows that corporate gibberish is bad for equality. According to a study by Business in the Community, a UK employment charity, young people are regularly put off from applying to entry level roles by the “business-speak” used in job specs. Two thirds (66%) of young people didn’t understand the role they would be applying for. The study also found that jargon has a negative impact on confidence, making the 16-to 24-year olds surveyed feel like they don’t deserve a job or aren’t good enough. Respondents also reported feeling intimidated and unsure of what they’d be signing up for if they were to be successful in their application. Most worryingly, the more disadvantaged the young people in the study were, the more easily discouraged by jargon they were.
The English-speaking world used to crow that theirs was the language of commerce. If you wanted a deal done in Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro or Lagos, English was usually the lingua franca. A biproduct of this soft power asset is, according to Sandbach of Free Range Communications, a globalisation of jargon. English jargon has made its way into boardrooms in languages ranging from Mandarin to Swiss-German. “These words aren’t always translatable,” he says. “So they pop up in speech everywhere.”
If The Writer’s Nordone is to be heeded, businesses that can cut out jargon stand to gain an edge over competitors and – quite possibly – avert disasters through clear and simple language. “People ignore or run away from stuff if they don’t understand it. Long-winded language, business speak, it all turns the reader off and loses attention,” she says. “Depending on what industry you’re in, that can be very dangerous indeed.”
With business-speak increasingly associated with ineptitude, inexperience and commercial catastrophe, the case for doing without it has never been stronger. Verbose executives will have to find new ways to describe blue sky thinking, thought showers and peeling back the onion.