Declaring war on corporate jargon

In Ideas by Peter Gearin

It’s time the forces of good defeated those evil empires spouting the garbage-speak of business … going forward.

Gabrielle Dolan remembers a conversation that sparked her corporate campaign for Jargon Free Fridays. It was about 20 years ago, and the communications and leadership expert was working with a senior executive at a global company. “He kept using the term ‘executional excellence’ … it was one of the company’s values,” Dolan says. “To me it sounded like he’d killed someone, and he’d done it really well.”

She remembers telling the executive that she didn’t know what the term meant and doubted many of his team did either. “He said, ‘well, you know, it’s the combination of the visualisation followed by the realisation of our agreed deliverables in line with our strategic direction’.” Dolan told him she still didn’t understand. “Well, you know, it can be defined as the completion of our objectives in a consistent and reliable manner.”

Dolan asked him to explain it again, but this time in simple language. “He was getting really pissed off,” she says. “He said, ‘put simply, what it means is when we decide to do something, let’s make sure we bloody well do it right’. I said ‘Why don’t you say that to your people? If the catchcry was ‘Let’s bloody well do it right’, your team would get it’.”

As well as being a successful consultant, speaker and author, Dolan created the Jargon Free Friday initiative in 2015. The plan is to make people more aware of the cringeworthy cliches, meaningless terminology and impenetrable acronyms used in offices, shops and factories everywhere, and focus on using simpler, everyday language – even if it’s just for one day each week.

Business jargon isn’t just an issue for leaders and their employees. Imprecise, industry-specific waffle and nonsense often becomes “house style” – it’s the way a business talks to other companies and its clients and customers. It migrates from CEO and CFO emails and internal documents and infiltrates discussion papers, client briefings, advertising copy and social media posts. It permeates the quotes used by company executives when they speak to the media or at business events, or write blog posts. Communications that are intended to foster clarity and understanding about a topic deliver the opposite.

Let’s be honest. Spoken and written corporate gobbledigook is a virus that afflicts just about every business in every industry in the world. We have all caught a dose. No one is immune and we spread it easily, often without thinking about it. Dolan knows Jargon Free Fridays isn’t the antidote to the disease, but it will have done its job if it at least raises greater awareness of the issue and its harmful effects.

Now there’s  your problem

So, how did it come to this? Dolan isn’t sure but she has her suspicions. ”I think professional service firms – like McKinsey and PwC – have a lot to do with this,” she says. “They come into a business – all these really clever people – and start using these terms. To fit in we just start repeating them, and then all of a sudden everyone’s repeating them, with half the people not knowing exactly what they mean. I think we just see it as being really professional, and businesslike, using these words.”

Dolan says employees, particularly senior executives, believe they are more effective – and perhaps more efficient – reciting jargon. This is especially the case when they choose to use industry-specific acronyms. “We think, for example, ‘What’s our CVP?’ is really a short way to say, ‘What’s our customer value proposition?’” she says. “But the point is then people have to go, ‘CVP … CVP … what’s that? Oh, that’s customer value proposition’. Then they go, ‘I’m not really sure what that means either’.

“The listener has to do all the hard work trying to understand it. A real leader, and a really good communicator, uncomplicates the complicated.”

It’s something that has had an impact on even the smartest among us. When Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes attended his first board meetings, the now tech billionaire was made to feel out of his depth. In a Fairfax Media article, he described how he found himself “surrounded by suits, acronyms flying around and feeling like a five-year-old as I write them down secretly in my notebook so that I can look them up on Wikipedia when I get home later”.

“They want to sound intelligent so they use these words. But they say nothing.”Gabrielle Dolan

Dolan says marketing and technology are two industries in which jargon has undermined clear communications. References to “ROIs” and “CRMs”, and concepts such as “dialogues”, “narratives” and “optimisations”, are a long way removed from what we learnt at school. “The marketing people are one of the worst,” she says. “Like in technology they have their own acronyms, but the marketing people … it’s almost hilariously funny where you just go, ‘Do you understand what you’re saying?’”

She cites a recent example of what happened after a successful meeting with a friend and marketer. “After we got to the end, he went, “OK, well, I’ll mudmap that and get back to you”. I just went, ‘You’ll what? What the hell is a mudmap?’ He goes: ‘I dunno. It’s what we say. I don’t even know where it comes from.’”

There might be a “cultural cringe” element to this widespread growth of business buzzwords. The powerful influence of US business practices and language has dominated how the corporate world communicates, especially in the Western world. “When I do my keynote speaking, I have a little bit of fun with words such as ‘realisation’ and ‘actualisation’ and ‘operationalisation’,” Dolan says. “When did we decide that adding ‘isation’ to the end of every tenth word we say makes us sound really intelligent?

“Everyone’s using these words. They just start using them because that’s how you fit in. So it becomes the norm, and then it starts to seep out. And that’s how we start talking to our clients.”

Dolan says she is often perplexed after reading what appears on client websites. “I reckon half the time I have no better idea of what they actually do,” she says. “It’s just ‘strategic consulting firm delivering value to our clients’. But you ask yourself ‘What are you doing? What do you actually do?’ They want to sound really intelligent and better, so they use all these words. But they say nothing. They absolutely say nothing.”

Bring in the jargon busters

Visa’s head of marketing in Australia and New Zealand, Jac Phillips, is an ambassador for the Jargon Free Fridays campaign. She says she gets mixed reactions after suggesting to colleagues that they might abstain from using jargon just one day a week.

“Some embrace it and say ‘Love it, count me in, I want to be more conscious of what I say and how I’m perceived’,” Phillips says. “A few others – maybe the guilty? – have responded with ‘Ha! Not relevant to me … Let me give you a heads-up. I don’t use jargon and going forward I believe less and less of my stakeholders will articulate or ideate on corporate narratives’.”

Phillips says she isn’t sure why executives resort to using such jargon, even if it’s generally only when they are doing business. “[Are they] lacking confidence or lazy?” she asks. “With the former, I think some feel they come across as more ‘intelligent’ if they use the latest buzzwords, especially if they’re technology related. With the latter, some just like following the pack – they’ve heard these words used and simply adopt them, too.”

As well as Dolan’s campaign, anti-jargon forces hope they are changing business attitudes. US writer Josh Bernoff wrote the book Writing Without Bullshit, highlighting the advantages of saying what you mean. He produces a daily newsletter with his interpretation of what business and government officials actually mean when they speak publicly or release media statements.

“After 40 years in academia and the corporate world, I’ve had my fill,” says Bernoff, explaining how he got into his own personal crapshoot. “Writing without bullshit is three things. It’s clear, it’s brief and it’s not boring. It’s also valuable and rare.”

Dolan isn’t sure if the jargon-free challenge will modify anyone’s behaviour in the long term. “I’m an eternal optimist so I think it’s changing,” she says. “I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of it completely.

“What I do see is a trend to leaders being more authentic. Not only in their decisions, what they do and bringing their whole selves to work, but I think it’s had a flow-on effect in the language they’re using.

“I know a lot of leaders ban words. I have a friend who’s a chief risk officer at Telstra. When she took on the role she banned the word ‘journey’. She said it was hilarious. People were going, ‘But what?’ She said, ‘Think of another word!”

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