Understanding the Difference Between Business-Speak and Useless Jargon

Posted by Bridget Beirne
September 24, 2015

by Bridget Beirne

Bridget Beirne"Let's put a pin in that and circle back around in the breakout sessions, shall we?  Or let's just offline it and I'll ping you later."

Ummm.... What? 

At this point, we've all become fluent in business-speak. Every now and again, some new idea arises for which the collective consciousness suddenly births a new term, and before we know it we're all "downloading" each other on new information. We not only create the dictionary, but then immediately put it into use. 

While lots of corporate-talk and jargon is useful, there is a line between constructive communication and feeling like this:


                          via GIPHY

Business-speak, corporate-talk, jargon — though we may not think about it this way, they are all entry into a club. They come with the territory in many company cultures as surely as casual Fridays and weekly meetings. But when it comes to business communication skills, where can we draw the line?

The Benefits of Business-Speak

In her article, "The Sad Truth About Why People Use Business Jargon" for Inc.com, Jill Krasny cites a study done by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Basically, this study found that the more abstract your language, the more those around you respect you. Here's how she sums it up:

In an interview with New York Magazine, [Cheryl] Wakslak [lead author of the study] explained this phenomenon: "People see the abstract communicator as a more 'big picture' kind of person," which makes them appear more powerful." So while you think it looks smart to drill down on specifics in meetings, chances are you're only putting your colleagues to sleep.

"Our findings suggest that if you want to seem powerful to onlookers, it is important to demonstrate abstraction, to use abstract language to communicate the gist of the situation, rather than concrete language that spells out the specific details," Wakslak added. 

We like big picture thinking, and respond to it. So, the vagueness of corporate-talk can garner respect from others, merely by using it. 

As for jargon, we often use it as a time-saver, or a shorthand. How many people in your office refer to their Macintosh computers? Or ask you to verify information in the customer relationship management program? Probably none. Jargon, from acronyms to full-on nicknames (Thanks, branding!) is in effect. Again, it makes us feel that we belong, we know what we're talking about. And let's be honest, if you had to say "customer relationship management program" every time you wanted to talk about your CRM, the work day would be at least an hour longer. (OK, that might be a bit of an exaggeration...) 

Where Does it All Go Wrong?

From those ideas alone, it would seem like we should only speak in corporate-talk, and do nothing but spout vague ideas and acronyms from dawn-to-dusk. Think of the power we'd wield! And the time we'd save! Yet, we often feel put-off by these terms. It feels fake, manufactured, non-specific, or worst of all, insincere. We cringe and shake our heads at the overuse.

But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. These three ideas can help you sort out the good, the bad, and the useless of corporate-talk.  Keep them in mind as you navigate meetings, presentations, and even one-on-ones. 

1. It's OK to use jargon IF...: You define it. You don't have to leave all of your industry-specific jargon by the wayside. However, if you think there is even ONE listener who may not know what you're referring to, you need to define your terms. Acknowledge that for some listeners it might be a retread, but that you're going to do it for the group as a whole: "Many of you know this, but for those of you who might not we refer to our customer relationship business-speakmanager with the acronym CRM." Or seamlessly slide the definition in before you use the acronym: "Let's talk about our customer relationship manager. Our CRM is..." Think of it as making sure that you leave no listener behind. You'll make it easier for them to keep up with your content with a quick definition.

2. Consider your audience: There really isn't an aspect of business communication skills for which this simple idea doesn't apply. Is this a meeting of the same five people every week? Chances are you're digging into details, and you can speak specifically and simply with each other. Need to give some big-picture thoughts at a conference? You might use some of that more over-arching business-speak. Either way, make sure you aren't just hiding behind the language and let your authenticity shine through.

3. Recognize when you've overused it: This may be the most difficult, because it requires some self-awareness activities on your part. Do you hear yourself speaking only in buzzwords and corporate cliché? Do you find you reach for these terms FIRST, rather than using them as-needed? Have you caught heat from co-workers for overdoing it with the "offlining?" These are signs that you may be undermining your own authenticity. Remember, people want to speak to YOU, not someone who can only convey ideas in a corporate-talk construct.

Take a few weeks and evaluate your own communication.  Make notes, and strive to walk that line of balance between benefits and pitfalls. Once you understand the difference, you can truly make the most of your corporate communication.

How do you feel about jargon and business-speak in your day-to-day? Let us know in the comments below!

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