"Execute a strategic pivot."
"Implement workforce optimization go-forward program."
Go socialize that idea with key stakeholders."
"Open the kimono a bit here."
Do these expressions sound familiar? If you've worked in the corporate world, they probably do. Today virtually every workplace and every profession is awash in jargon. And like never before, people are fed up.
As the CEO of The Humphrey Group, a firm that is exclusively focused on leadership communication, I've been listening for over a decade to executives, managers and front-line specialists complain about jargon.
Yet even those who condemn and loathe jargon are quick to say in the same breath that they couldn't possibly get away without using it.
What is going on here? Why do smart, driven, dedicated people continue to use words they loathe listening to? Most importantly, what can and should leaders do with jargon? These were some of the questions I set out to answer when I began researching my book, Leading Through Language: Choosing Words That Influence And Inspire.
What I concluded was that though there are some benefits to jargon, these benefits are almost always outweighed by negatives. The result: if you want to influence and persuade others when you communicate, you are almost always better off replacing jargon with clear, powerful language.
Here is how leaders look at language, and the lessons for those who wish to lead when they speak.
Leaders know the difference between good and bad jargon.
All jargon is not created equally, and some can be useful. Jargon can allow for expediency when there is a common understanding between speaker and listener. For example, a CEO speaking to Wall Street analysts can use "EPS" instead of "earnings per share" or "P/E ratio" instead of "price-to-earnings ratio."
Jargon can also serve as a common language that bonds people together and creates a shared culture (think of watching football with someone who also understands the difference between a "Cover 2" and "Prevent" defence). But most jargon does not deliver these benefits for the speaker or their audience.
Instead, jargon ends up confusing or excluding listeners who grasp at its meaning or end up thinking the speaker means something else entirely. Some audiences simply shut down when they hear too many words they don't understand, tuning out the speaker completely.
Remember: though it may be tempting to use jargon to fit in, it usually isn't worth the price you pay. Unless you really need jargon to save time or build culture, avoid it. Your audiences will thank you.
Leaders know every word they use should support their message - or be discarded.
Leaders focus on defining and sharing powerful ideas with their audiences. They know that the words they select should convey -- rather than cloud -- their thinking. That's why it's critical to strip away fillers, such as mincing modifiers ("I could be wrong..." or "this is just my opinion"), intensifiers ("actually, "frankly" and "basically") and unnecessary add-ons (see chart below).
Remember: be deliberate about which words you add and strip out the rest. Your ideas should stand on their own, and be unencumbered by jargon and filler.
Leaders are always capable of defining what they mean.
When leaders do make the decision to use a buzzword or term that their audience may not be familiar with, they define that term for their audience. So the CEO of a startup who tells her staff that "the time has come for us to pivot our business" doesn't stop there. She continues by saying, "When I say pivot, what I mean is that we will continue to offer the same product that we've been building but will abandon the retail consumer for the small to medium business market."
Remember: If you can't define it, don't use it.
Leaders use language to bring their ideas to life.
In this day and age of jargon overload, it can be easy to forget that language is a powerful leadership tool. When the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) wrote Rhetoric, he wasn't writing about words to avoid. Instead, he produced a treatise on the art of persuasion through language, one whose principles are still relevant today.
John F. Kennedy's memorable call to action in his 1961 inaugural address -- "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country" -- is a prime example of antithesis.
Rhetoric is still on display today. Simon Sinek's "How Leaders Inspire Action," one of the most popular TED Talks, is a case study in the power of repetition. Over and over in his 20-minute presentation, Sinek repeats that "people don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it."
Remember: tools like repetition, alliteration, antithesis, metaphor and rhetorical questions aren't just for Greek philosophers -- they are ways you can deliver your ideas more effectively. Doing so helps your audience hear your ideas and grasp their significance while enabling you to speak with passion and conviction.
Takeaways to deploy in your wheelhouse on a go-forward basis
It's tempting to use jargon because it saves time and signifies belonging -- to a company, profession, industry or even a team. But leaders know these benefits are usually overshadowed by the detrimental impacts of jargon, including confused and alienated audiences.
That's why if you want to influence and inspire when you speak, skip the big words, strip away the excess verbiage and bring your ideas to life with clarity and conviction. Your listeners will thank you for it.
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