Cómo se dice… “Strategic Communications”?

By: Guest | May 7, 2012 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Lucretia Pruitt

I was recently asked what I considered to be my strongest business skill.

No, I wasn’t interviewing for a job (which was the last time I was asked that question years ago). It was just one of those side conversations.

I didn’t expect it to become important, but sometimes these things linger until you have to explore them further.

I replied glibly with “I translate things well.”

In hindsight? Brevity is not always the soul of wit unless you’re Shakespeare.

To make a long story short (also not my forte) I didn’t mean, “I translate things between English and any other spoken language out there.”

I was trying to cleverly say I have dedicated much of my professional life to translating ideas from one vocation or business silo to another; like geek-speak to marketing, customer service to biz dev, creator to user, PR to blogger, and legalese to R & D.

The presence of jargon indicates you are amongst ‘your people’ when it comes to business. Acronyms are how we shorthand our speech not just so we can speed things up, but also so we can weed people out. If that guy doesn’t know what ROI is, does he know what SaaS is? How about CPMs? SQL? Has he never heard of an NDA?

Must not be from around here…

The more time we spend in one business arena, the more we seem to adopt speech patterns that fit with our discipline. But likewise, even if someone in a different field is in the same company or working on the same project, listening to them can often seem like a babbling mix of real and meaningless words. It gets even more fun when they use an acronym you are sure means something else entirely.

Three ways to avoid jargon so you aren’t working in the proverbial Tower of Babel:

(none of which includes refusing to talk to them because they should just learn your language *ahem*)

  1. Hire “translators.” If you have time and money to throw at the problem, find people like me (information junkies who like to figure out how to bridge the gap between one mindset and another) amongst your employees or consultants who you can pay to function as your translators.
  2. Find multiple people to bridge the gap. Your ‘translators’ don’t need to speak every language, they just need to be able to mediate between two different business cultures or perspectives. There are a couple of ways to do this: You can find/hire/work with people who have made career shifts that give them more than one skill set to work with like the gal who spent five years as a programmer before she realized she’d rather be in PR, or the guy who went to law school but really has a passion for marketing.
    Cross-train people already in your company who have that “I’ve always wanted to do X, but never had the chance” urge.
  3. Find your own ‘touchstones’ in other fields. For those of us who don’t have large payrolls or who can’t quite figure out how to fit “IT-to-Marketing Translator” into an org chart, sometimes the solution is more of a DIY (do it yourself, for you non-TLA people.) Reach out to someone from a different arena and nurture a relationship with them enabling the two of you enough of the other person’s ‘language’ to get by. Yes, this may mean socializing with the enemy. You’ll live.

The most useful phrase most of us learn in another language early on is the equivalent of “How do you say?” (See title for reference.) But the most useful skill to remember when you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t speak your language is to keep it basic.

Finding someone who can serve as your translation touchstone will help you to reinforce both of those habits.

KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid.

No matter which solution you choose, remember your goal is to communicate. Check the jargon and the acronyms at the door. If the other guy’s eyes start to glaze over, you probably started using that polysyllabic vocabulary of yours again. Knock it off.

Lucretia M. Pruitt is CEO  and co-founder of a pre-launch tech startup and therefore serves no other useful purpose at the moment. Her former incarnation as a social media gun-for-hire working with both small businesses and Fortune 100 clients. She blogs occasionally at The Social Joint, tweets incessantly as @LucretiaPruitt and often speaks to real, live people on social media integration and strategy and blogger outreach. She was named one of Nielsen’s Power Mom 50 Influential Bloggers in 2009 as @Geekmommy – but that was in the Pleistocene era of the Blogosphere and now she just ignores her ever-growing inbox and reads Spin Sucks to stay in touch.

  • Mediamum

    I love this post! It’s true that people who excel at communicating their ideas can do it simply, and without the affect that comes with selected use of jargon. Trying to make someone feel inferior because you know buzzwords they can’t relate to doesn’t help you get your message across, and it doesn’t make you superior. It makes you clueless. People like people who they can talk to. It’s our job to speak their language, not the other way around. Thanks Lucretia! 

    •  @Mediamum Thanks Jo! I know it’s really common sense – but sometimes that common sense thing is the one that goes out the window exactly when we need it not to, eh?

  • ImaginationSoup

    HA – KISS is awesome and the one jargon word I can live with. Although, I do know what you mean about recognizing if someone if someone knows their “stuff” or is non-native. Since I write about education, I’m always trying to de-jargonify my lingo. Can I make that a word?
    Great post! 

    •  @ImaginationSoup Kiss has always been my favorite one too!! But it’s kind of hard not to drop into the speech patterns of our own sect – it’s comforting!But I vote for de-jargonify. It’s catchy and it’s clear to pretty much anyone! 🙂

  • Moose and Tater

    I love it! I wish I could be a translator, but I think I am more in the position of needing one than anything. Great post, thank you for sharing! 

    •  @Moose and Tater actually, that’s being one step ahead of most people. It’s kind of hard to remember that the problem isn’t that the other guy is stupid, it’s that he’s got no idea what the heck language we’re using. :)Better to know you need a good translator than to just give up on trying to get your message across.

  • TheMileHighMama

    KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid. This is my new mantra. Way to break this down in understandable, easily applied terms!

    •  @TheMileHighMama – I tend to over-complicate things myself, so it’s a conscious effort to follow the KISS method.  It’s something I do when translating, but kind of forget to do when it’s me communicating.  I’m working on it! 🙂

  • LavLuz

    I admire people like you who have both breadth and depth.
    Love this: “Acronyms are how we shorthand our speech not just so we can speed things up, but also so we can weed people out.”

    •  @LavLuz I remember reading a help-wanted ad (dating myself) for a computer programmer back in the day that made me think “well, I guess if I don’t have a clue what half of those things mean, I’m probably wasting my time applying.”I think maybe we self-sort sometimes. 

  • The title reminds me of high school. Speaking of…they should have a business jargon class! 

    •  @EugeneFarber I actually hear my junior high Spanish teacher’s voice (Sra. Krumholz would be proud of me now!) when I read it.  I just found myself telling my own daughter that learning that phrase would help her learn Spanish a lot faster than pretending that she new the word for something she didn’t.They should have business jargon classes (I know I was convinced for a long time that the whole point of law school was to teach lawyers how to speak in a language they could charge other people hundreds of dollars an hour to *not* use.)

    • ginidietrich

       @EugeneFarber Business schools are the worst at this – they teach you jargon so the perception is that you’re smarter than everyone else.

      •  @ginidietrich  @EugeneFarber I’m pretty sure that’s embedded in all professions. When you think about it, there’s a rather paranoid system out there of business that believes that without complicated processes and jargon ‘anyone could do it!’What people that espouse that tend to forget is that not everyone *wants* to do it, nor will have an aptitude for it even if you do make it universally understandable.So jargon becomes sort of a ‘verbal secret handshake’ when it’s really just a barrier to good communication.

  • ginidietrich

    I have to say, your bio is my favorite part of this. BUT…the jargon thing kills me. We work with GE and we always joke with them that they need to write a GE dictionary so people know what they’re talking about if they don’t work there or they’re brand new to the company. Of course, 30 Rock makes fun of this a little bit, too. But the point is, you have to talk to people in layman’s terms…and I love that you’re good at taking technical information and “dumbing” it down (for lack of a better term). 

    •  @ginidietrich  I need to start writing my writing like I write my bio.  Good advice! :)But yeah, the trick to telling if you’re doing too much ‘jargon speak’ is the “confused nod and smile” maneuver on the part of your audience. If s/he is tilting the head like a puppy hearing a whistle? It’s one of those “dude, stop with the insider terms.”

  • Vlittle

    Ahhh, I think I am the one that is usually lost when people are talking, but I pretend to know exactly what they are talking about or conveniently have to go to the bathroom as soon as a question about klout comes up. I guess I should just start KISS…ing!

    •  @Vlittle  you know… I totally did that for awhile when I would start learning new subjects – then I realized that the problem wasn’t on my end for not knowing, but on the speaker’s end for assuming and on mine for NOT speaking up.When I was first learning about PR? I found people dropped agency names and people names as if I’d know who they were.  It made me feel like I clearly *should* know who they were talking about, but was just clueless.  Then I realized that what I needed to do was say “I’m sorry, from the way you mention them? I’m getting the impression that I need to know who AgencyX is – but I’m afraid we just crossed over into grey area for me. Can you give me a Reader’s Digest version of who that is or why I should?”Turns out other people LOVE sharing that knowledge with you.So I now look at those moments as ‘opportunity to help someone else look knowledgeable and helpful’ instead of ‘opportunity for me to look uninformed.’  I guess we just have to start looking at people and saying “I’m sorry, what exactly are you talking about?” 😉

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  • I love this post, @LucretiaPruitt and can almost hear you saying some of this stuff. Yes the issue of jargon is very real, especially in the B2B world and translators are essential. I have always enjoyed diving in headfirst to dry industry-speak and working to make it come alive and beckon to new readers. And having the ability to translate is a gift, make no mistake. Well done, you.

    •  @allenmireles – I swear I replied to your comment. Maybe I’m in the twilight zone! I think people like you are the equivalent of literature translators versus Google translate: without the willingness to understand and infuse the content with interest from the listener’s perspective, you get word-for-word confusion that no one really understands.

  • LisaThorell

    Hey, @LucretiaPruitt ! This was so worth reading, especially to discover your gem of  a fabuloso bio at the end. I think this “translator” function within companies you speak of is of growing importance — especially in bridging the inevitable “digital divide” between those who really understand the nuances of the latest tech and those who have great business savvy but do not get these nuances. As you may know , I’m a great believe in Open Innovation. And even as we learn that supporting a “diverse” workforce (eg. hiring people you wouldnt ordinarily hire; outside the usual fields germane to your business; listening to people way outside on the edges) is key to creating innovative, creative work-communities, such translators become even more important. Stopping the jargon and instead describing what you do as an anthropologist would describe what is happening in one culture to another different culture –this is a precious communications area. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of this.

    •  @LisaThorell I’m very much with you on that! Had a discussion with a friend a couple of weeks back about metaphors and the fact that we use them to try and find the commonality between our experiences.  It’s kind of the difference between celebrating inclusiveness rather than exclusivity, isn’t it?Thanks Lisa!! Open Innovation is going into my lexicon (once I learn a bit more about it!)

      • LisaThorell

         @LucretiaPruitt You are already there. Best starting pt. for anyone interested in Open Innovation is Henry Chesbrough, This is a fairly recent endorsing citation for a 2005-2006 idea by Chesbrough. IMHO the fact that Chesbrough is not cited first and foremost in the list by MIT is more a function of politics than reality. 😉

        •  @LisaThorell Reading that? I’m a big time advocate. I’m actually in the middle of thinking through a piece on ‘build, buy, or partner?’ since it’s such an integral part of how you have to think of business at this point.  The funny part is that so many people see ‘partner’ as some sort of concession.  I thought that Ford & Firestone settled all of that for us a century ago! If left to my own meandering though? The touchstone concept comes a lot from having learned that trying to think like your ‘target market’ is not the same as actually as effective as talking to them and understanding how they actually see things.

  • MarieHayesFolmar

    My husband needs a translator! Every time he talks about IT Security, my eyes glaze over! Thanks, Lucretia!

    •  @MarieHayesFolmar both my husband and I are tech geeks and yet, we’ve had our glaze-over moments with each other nonetheless.  Mostly because he’s passionate about different aspects than I am.  But I can only imagine how much faster it would happen if I really didn’t have any interest in it… 🙂

  • yourwebchick

     @LucretiaPruitt I try to convince my clients about  the dangers of using jargon all the time in my line of work too. My copier company client insists they have a page called reconditioned units… to the rest of us that’s called a “used copier” 🙂 

    •  @yourwebchick – I think you hit a key point there too – they don’t seem to be communicating in the language of their *potential* customers.  I’m with you that I’d be Googling “used copiers” long before it would occur to me to search for “copiers reconditioned units.”Someone, somewhere along the way must’ve convinced them that using a different term would make them sound more valuable… but if no one can find you to buy them? They don’t have any value.

      • yourwebchick

         @LucretiaPruitt Instead of arguing with them anymore..I finally just did a new page and showed them the analytics.. guess you have to speak THEIR language.. which is numbers! 🙂

  • JennyFord

    Great post Lu!  You are the queen of information!

  • MomInManagement

    Very true and applicable across many fields. 

  • jgoodedesigns

    Fantastic post – I too find myself “translating” from one industry to the next, most the time arenas that don’t seem to relate at all. However, when it comes to PR, all things relate, or should. Knowing when to cut out or how to use the industry lingo is a hugely important facet of successful conversations. Well done @LucretiaPruitt ! (PS – I love listening to your non-brevity 😉

  • chaotic_barb

    I thought I had posted on this the other day from my phone but I see that it didn’t go through.
    I am seeing more and more companies and brands looking for unique ways to bridge the language gap in certain blogging niches. It only makes sense. If you can’t speak the native language, you can’t expect to be invited to the conversation.
    People like you are invaluable to industries trying to break into foreign niches. It’s a rare talent to be able to speak so many of the languages you do: geek, mom, blogger, social media, business, e-commerce, statistics, marketing, coding and on and on.