Ideate this:
How jargon can ruin your meetings

In a corporate world that wants us to iterate, ideate and innovate, how do we separate the information from the buzzwords?

The degradation of the English language seems to have gathered pace in recent years, but there is a very serious side to it. Everything has become euphemistic, and this points to a lack of confidence. We hide behind jargon. We dare not say exactly what we mean – so even holiday is now ‘annual leave'.

For associations there is a pressing need for clarity, both in terms of internal and external communications. The sometimes tricky relationship between volunteer board and executive can quickly turn sour if meaning is lost in a cloud of jargon, while consistently delivering confusing, incoherent messages to your members and delegates is a sure-fire way to lose them.

I recently went to a meeting with a new client to present creative concepts for a new campaign. We had made a conscious decision to present the rationale with no ‘buzzwords’ at all.

Enable, empower, and execute came out in favour of let, allow, help, and do. The reaction from the client was eye-opening: "It’s very well written, isn’t it? It’s so clear." When we explained what we had done, the penny dropped, and she smiled. "That’s the difference."

Clearly, what we did wasn’t rocket science, but it was different enough to stand out and impress our client with its clarity. So, what holds us back from saying what we really mean?

We have to remember that many people have learned a corporate, or industry specific, language over many years and breaking it down can be very difficult. Even those who are encouraged to ‘simplify’, ‘cut the jargon’ and ‘be direct’ can struggle to find – or remember – the right words.

Some are initially happy but, after a round of edits, ‘agility’, ‘course correct’ and ‘collaboration’ will creep back in where ‘move fast’, ‘change your plans’ and ‘work together’ had previously been.

So, should we even be trying to change ingrained behaviour? The answer – as is so often the case – depends very much on the audience.

If you’re planning a forum for leaders who are driving the change, you can be reasonably confident they all know and understand the jargon – it’s a shorthand for them.

Peel back a layer or two and you’re speaking to a wider audience who may not have already bought into the idea or understand the need for changing their behaviour. If it really is essential to use the jargon, then it’s just as important to focus one of your sessions on explaining what that means in context. Even simple words like ‘transformation’ are used to convey a specific meaning in a business context and it might not be clear to your audience what you’re driving at.

group of people taking photo

Another point to consider is how this affects multilingual audiences. Speakers of other languages will often try to translate key words into their native language to confirm to themselves that they have understood correctly. Some languages have no direct translation – just an approximation. You can’t run the risk of leaving people behind by assuming they’ve understood.

If you lose people in the beginning, you reduce your chance of a successful communication. That’s what we should be telling our clients when it comes to their choice of words.

If, like me, you see the point of getting to the point, don’t judge your clients for their jargon but try to help them cut it where they can in the interest of understanding.

Top tips for clarity

  • Make preparation meetings and content development sessions a jargon and acronym­-free zone.
  • Encourage clients to simplify what they say.
  • Remind clients that saying what they really mean is the key to authenticity.
  • Build more confident presenters! Don’t let them hide behind buzzwords.

Jeff Bateman

Jeff Bateman

Jeff Bateman is the head of strategic communications at Congrex and founder of Perspective Communications and Coaching. He is also an AMI Expert Contributor.