In defence of business jargon

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Posted 25 June 2014

Lots of people seem to have a big down on jargon, but is that fair or useful? In Research-Live, Lucy Hoang of Northstar asks whether jargon is a necessary evil? In her post, Lucy pointed out some of the downsides, highlighted the uses of jargon, and shared some good points about helping newcomers get to grips with key terms, for example the use of COB for close of business.

Some of the comments on her post reiterated the view that all jargon was bad. However, I think some jargon is both necessary and indeed helpful.

In terms of definitions my starting point is the Oxford English Dictionary (the OED to its fans) which defined jargon as “words or expressions used by a particular profession or group that are difficult for others to understand.” Jargon is also of relevance to sociolinguistics where it is one of the terms that can indicate a speech community, where the use of language is different from the wider community, but facilitates communication within the group, where the group can be as broad as a profession, or as narrow as a family or group or friends.

Facilitating communication
The starting point for any aspect of communication is whether it aids the message recipient receiving/understanding the message the speaker/writer is attempting to convey. This means the speaker/writer must choose words that ‘work’ for the purpose of the message and which ‘work’ for the audience. Any use of jargon needs to be based on a reliable assumption that the recipient is going to understand it.

Bad Jargon
I do not think all jargon is good, indeed it might be the case that the majority of jargon is not good. When I talk about jargon that is bad I mean anything that confuses the audience or distracts the audience or reduces the ability of the message to be communicated.

Examples of bad jargon include:

  1. Language which is now out of date. For example, I sometimes see notes that ask the recipient to revert, or where the recipient of my message promises to revert. Revert used to be a common way of saying ‘reply’ or ‘respond’ – however, in the UK/USA/Australia few people under 50 are familiar with this term. Many Latin terms fall into this out of date category, at least in the worlds of marketing and insight, for example inter alia, amongst other things, is no longer readily and widely understood.
  2. Jargon from other professions. If you are talking to market researchers and marketers, then jargon from other fields should be avoided, or explained. For example the Big Data acronym ETL is likely to confuse, even if spelled out as Extract-Transform-Load it is likely to confuse. In these cases if ETL is important (and in these days of big data it is of growing relevance) then it needs to be explained.
  3. Jargon that is used to make the speaker appear smart or trendy, as opposed to helping communicate the message. For me, two recent examples are “Swim lane” (a specific responsibility within the business) or “Tiger teams” (a team of specialists, often technical IT specialists).
  4. Jargon that reinforces discrimination or bad taste. Many people feel that sporting analogies tend to be discriminatory in the sense that they are much more familiar to men than women, and represent an ‘in group’ (i.e. men) and an ‘out group’ (i.e. women). Dinking the Kool-aid (i.e., unquestioningly following the company line) is a fairly tasteless reference to the Jonestown Massacre. And, “opening the kimono” seems to me both sexist (otherwise why not open the yukata – worn by men and women) and somewhat creepy!

Good Jargon
Good jargon includes things that:

  1. Make the meaning clearer
  2. Reduce the effort required of the reader
  3. Place the emphasis of the message in the right place.
  4. Make the communication more engaging.

Making the meaning clearer
When talking about survey questions to people who know about survey questions the jargon term “Grids” is much clearer than a plain English description. The jargon term random probability sample, is usually much more precise than a paragraph explaining what it is. The term verbatims is rejected by Microsoft Word, because it is a truncated form of something like “verbatim responses” or “verbatim comments”, but it is very clear and very precise, amongst users of research – it means the comments from research participants, collected as part of a research process.

Reducing the cognitive load
Hey, cognitive load is certainly jargon. I could have changed my headline to say “Reducing the effort required by the reader to understand the message by recognising that recent developments in neuroscience have indicated that analytical thinking processes require considerable effort and that the brain typically tries to reduce work, which can result in the brain ignoring elements of the message or of jumping to conclusions.” But, I would argue my heading is better for the people I am expecting to read this post.

Referring to CATI instead of spelling it out (or instead of a plain English description) reduces the reader’s cognitive load. RDD (Random Digit Dial) is an even better example, when you are sure the reader is familiar with the term. So, I would write RDD in a paper for sampling geeks, I would write random digit dialling if writing for a wider research audience, and outside of research I would probably not refer to this degree of detail.

Putting the emphasis in the right place
The fairly new term C-suite refers collectively to people like CEOs, COOs, CFOs (Chief Executive Officer – i.e. the boss, Chief Operations Officer – often the person running the bits of the company that make it work, and Chief Financial Officer – the person running the financial side of the business, in particular the accounts). If the reader can reliably be assumed to know the term C-suite, then a sentence can be written about the need to communicate with the C-suite without the sentence having to focus on the detail of who, which is important when the focus should be on the message.

One of the key elements in communication is where the emphasis is. Jargon allows the writer/speaker to focus on the message, rather than giving equal weight to every part of the message, when the jargon is understood by the recipient.

Making the communication more engaging
Plain English definitely has its role. But nobody would have watched Shakespeare’s plays if he had used plain English, nobody would have read Hemmingway if he had used plain English, and nobody would listen to the messages of people like Seth Godin, Tom Peters, and Daniel Kahneman if they had used plain English.
Busy people, people in marketing and insight professionals expect messages to be engaging, they want storytelling, they want creative use of images and language. These things tend to require jargon, metaphors, analogies, and idiom. Plain English runs the risk of not being listened to.

Some disparaged examples
Forbes is running a poll about jargon, seeking to identify the most annoying examples. So, here is my defence of some of their contenders:

  • Take offline: This means to stop discussing a topic in a group situation so that it can be covered later, perhaps in a one-to-one discussion, rather than in a group. Why do I like it? Because it allows a problem to be diffused politely and easily. It is great when two people in a meeting disagree and the rest of the room do not wish to be involved until the two people in dispute have come to a single view.
  • Full service: In marketing and market research this term is becoming increasingly useful as there are a growing number of companies who are not full service, choosing focus on one service, one media, or one method.
  • Ecosystem: This is a relatively new term in the marketing and insight world. It means looking at how things work in total, rather than looking at just one aspect. The mobile ecosystem, for example, refers to telephone service providers, handset manufacturers, users of phones, mobile advertisers, app producers etc. The reason to use the term ecosystem is to encourage the listener/reader to embrace the whole picture, not just the bit they have historically looked at.
  • Scalable. A scalable business or method is one that can be increased in size without a major problem. A good example of a business that is not scalable is face-to-face qualitative research. To double the size of the business requires twice as many people, and the people are hard to find. A good example of a scalable business is one that depends on technology, in which case a doubling of the sales might require very few extra people. When assessing new businesses or opportunities one of the key issues is whether the option is scalable.
  • Bleeding edge: The bleeding edge is when a development is so full of new developments that it is going to create stresses and problems because of its newness. For example, people who use Google Glass at the moment are going to meet challenges from legislators, shop owners, the general public, and from technology. The benefit of the term Bleeding edge is not only that it describes a phenomenon succinctly, but it also embodies a warning. For most people the bleeding edge is not a good place.

The key issue, as Lucy makes clear in her post, is making sure that the writer takes the reader into account. One of the great bits of advice in Lucy’s post is that we need to help newcomers to our industry learn the key terms and we should avoid stigmatising people who have not heard of: COB, CFO, IPO, CTR, or TLA.

ps the acronym TLA is a joke, it refers to Three Letter Acronyms

One thought on “In defence of business jargon

  1. Jargon does have its place; if I’m addressing an audience composed of members of my own profession, using industry-specific terms alleviates the need for longer, unnecessary explanations. Keeping the audience in mind, however, is crucial, and I think that sadly many writers forget not only that their readers may include those unfamiliar with certain terms, but also forget which terms are indeed jargon, using those terms as if they actually were standard English. As a result, a distressing amount of writing is so densely packed with industry-specific terms that reading it requires careful translation and constant use of Google. Contributing to the problem too is the fact that new terms seem to appear almost daily. In short, jargon may be useful, but only when used in the proper context, and when it serves to clarify, rather than obscure the intended meaning.

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