Lee Polevoi

Business Jargon: Just Say No!

By: Lee Polevoi | November 4, 2013 | 

Business Jargon

By Lee Polevoi

Jargon in business writing is like mold.

It sets in while you’re looking elsewhere and before you know it, your prose and the message you want to send to the world are thoroughly infested.

The words you use represent your business and your brand – to your customers and employees, vendors, investors, and more. The use of shopworn or technical language confuses and alienates these various audiences and should be avoided like, well, the plague.

Here are more drawbacks to the creeping, insidious blot known as business jargon:

  • Readers get frustrated by language that lacks any obvious meaning. Frustration leads to diminished interest and the urge to look elsewhere for answers.
  • Lacking any relationship with overly technical jargon, would-be customers can’t offer the  type of feedback a business needs to continuously refine and upgrade its products or services.

The Usual Business Jargon Suspects

Examples of jargon in business writing abound. How many of the following examples sound familiar to you?

  • “End-users will benefit from the maximized efficiency and innovation of our product line.”
  • “After processing the most urgent action items, we should have sufficient bandwidth to address this mission-critical deliverable.”
  • “The best way to leverage our resources is by incentivizing all relevant constituencies and picking off the most optimum low-hanging fruit.”

OK, I may have overdone it with these examples, but we’ve all used some of the words and phrases included here – and to what end? Because it’s easy and we assume everyone else understands what these buzz-words mean.

That assumption is wrong. Individuals who will someday decide whether or not to purchase your products (“end-users”) may act as though they understand—who wants to look ignorant?—but jargon blocks any chance of a genuine human connection with these audiences.

Useful Anti-Jargon Remedies

Here are some things to keep in mind while composing email messages, website content, or your annual report:

Seek out and destroy technical terms: Whatever your industry, certain words and phrases keep popping up that resonate only with specialists in the field.

It’s fine to include these in the first draft of your message, but they should be deleted from succeeding revisions. Ruthlessly search for and replace technical terms and industry-specific abbreviations (the latter can be spelled out, if that results in clarity for the reader).

If you can’t bring yourself to replace a particular technical term, consider including a brief, clearly-written explanation of technical terms in a separate fact- or drop-box.

Try writing like you talk: This is good advice for all types of communications, but in this case you’re less likely to use jargon after saying it out loud to yourself. (Can we really say “actionable” or “paradigm shift” anymore without wincing a little?)

Writing the way you talk always sounds more authentic and natural—and offers greater appeal to your intended audience.

Anticipate questions your customers might ask: Unless your product or service is completely new and untested, you probably have an idea of what your customers intuitively understand about your offering and where that understanding breaks down.

Always, always, always address the key question in any customer’s mind: What’s in it for me? As communicators, you must absolutely be able to address this question in clear, “human-sounding” language.

Other questions likely to pop up include:

  • Which part of my message is a reader least likely to understand?
  • Can I provide additional explanation that clarifies the value my product offers?
  • Where can I use fresh language so customers feel I’m in tune with their needs and the challenges they face?

Share your writing with someone outside the industry: Generally speaking, one’s spouse or family members are unlikely to share your specialized knowledge. Try running a draft of your message past family or friends to see if it’s clear and easy to follow. Ask that they single out any jargon or language they don’t get—and expunge that language from future drafts.

Jargon occurs in some form in all businesses, but when it pops up in messages to customers, employees, etc., your job is to isolate and eliminate it. If not, you may end up negatively impacting the desired scalability of your synergistic enterprise.

And nobody wants that.

What’s your favorite example of business jargon?

About Lee Polevoi

When he isn't writing for Arment Dietrich, Lee Polevoi is an award-winning freelance copywriter and editor. He is the former senior writer for Vistage International, a global membership organization of chief executive officers. He writes frequently on issues and challenges faced by U.S. small businesses.

  • So completely a post after my own heart!! (And I realize in using the word “supercilious” in my post about my 12 most hated, I kind of broke my own rule but it worked for the snarky effect!) http://12most.com/2013/01/10/supercilious-corpspeak-terms/

  • Alisa Meredith

    Hey, I’m writing about the same thing right now. Great minds…

  • Amen! Just wrote on this topic, last Tuesday. Great minds? 😉

  • “Jargon in business writing is like mold.” If this doesn’t make you change your jargon-y words, I’m not sure what will! My favorite tip: Try writing like you talk. That’s exactly how I aim to write 🙂

  • CommProSuzi

    Hear! Hear!  I swear we need a Rosetta Stone for each industry! 
    Case in point: 
    I bounced my head off the table when a colleague convinced a client to change the word “experience” to “brand” on her job seeker website.  
    In this instance, the users and clients were buying the experience of working with her team. That’s what they would tell others about.

  • Arment Dietrich, Inc.

    Great minds indeed 🙂 ^yp

  • We used to keep a list on the white board at work of all the words clients used that made no sense. And then, during wine:thirty, we’d play jargon BINGO anytime someone said one of the words. It was to break them of the habit so they could remain neutral to what was not cool to use in external communications.

    • ginidietrich Great idea! Jargon is insidious, so at first we don’t necessarily know we’re using it. Good writing requires constant vigilance.

  • aimeelwest

    Thank you! I feel like such an idiot when I read those type of articles.
    My goal is to always write like I talk.

  • sherrilynne

    Going forward we’ll leverage state-of-the-art cutting-edge solutions.

  • rdopping

    Yeah but how am I going to sound smart?

  • I used to work for a woman who used “snackable” all the time. “Snackable content” Drove me BONKERS!

    • belllindsay that is horrendous!! It makes my ears bleed!

  • This is an excellent reminder for PR people. It’s all too easy to get sucked into the company’s vernacular—the verbal shorthand that makes communication easier inside an organization. (And impresses executives when they see that you “speak their language.”)
    But then it becomes a hard habit to break with external audiences. I call it linguistic Stockholm Syndrome.

    • RobBiesenbach Great point, Rob. If a CEO for example uses a buzzword in her communications, the next thing you know, everyone in the company is using it. Then it becomes part of the culture. The problem comes when that same buzzword creeps into marketing language aimed at customers. Watch out!

  • TheJimmyCollins

    My invitation to the meeting consisted of five long paragraphs loaded with business jargon.  
    My reply.  “I have no idea what you are asking me to do. If you will have someone write this invitation in clear and simple English, so that I can understand the purpose and objective of the meeting, I will be glad to respond.”
    A clear and simple English language letter arrived.  “It will not be necessary for you to attend the meeting.”
    I am glad the invitation was withdrawn.  One letter of that jargon made me feel ill.  An hour or two of exposure to speech saturated with business jargon might have been more than my simple mind could tolerate.
    If we all refuse to business jargon, we would realize the advantages of a language in common.
    Jimmy Collins

    • TheJimmyCollins Kudos for just saying no! Funny that the language uninviting you was so clearly written.

  • You broke this down in such a nice and polite way! This is a perfect post to hand over to someone who is about to choke in their own jargontastical monologues!

    • LauraPetrolino “jargontastical”! Love it.

  • TheJimmyCollins

    I have found that when I speak in clear and simple language, people respond to me in the same manner.

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