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Beat Business Jargon

A Veteran Bullfighter's Tips

Beat Business Jargon

The project manager says: "Let's take this offline and drill down to the core value-added proposition. This customer needs a turnkey solution to improve its ROI. We're talking about sea-level change. Ping me later, OK? We'll do a brain dump."

Translation: "Let's get together to talk about what we can do to boost our customer's sales. Call me later, OK?"

We've all heard it, and we're all guilty of using it. Business jargon is a tongue-twisting, ear-numbing, brain-boggling part of daily business life. You wouldn't ask your spouse or date to "take it offline" after dinner. When did businesspeople start writing and speaking in such gibberish?

"High tech started a lot of business-speak," observes Jon Warshawsky, coauthor of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter's Guide and chief bullfighting officer at Business Idiots LLC. "We're selling things that are more abstract and difficult to explain." And thanks to word processing, email and IM, we're all writers now too.

Aliens Stole My Dictionary

Business jargon is not only confusing, boring and misleading, it's also contagious. Spend a week at any company, and you'll start talking the talk, as though aliens from Zorgon were controlling your mind. The truth is out there in plain English, but we choose not to use it. For the love of Merriam-Webster, why?

"We're more concerned with how we appear to other people than about them understanding," Warshawsky says. "We want to sound smart and important. So we start making up words and ‘imagineering value-added solutions.' If the building was on fire and you knew the way out, you'd say it quickly: ‘door, stairs, fast!' When the chips are down, we communicate with easy-to-understand words."

Will It Make Sense to Mom?

Warshawsky and the Bullfighter's Guide coauthors found bloated, boring business jargon not only fails to make people sound smart but also makes them less likable. Conversely, those who try to speak and write clearly stand out. "The messages around you are so bad, you'll be surprised how far a little straight talk, humor and storytelling will take you," the books authors write.

A Bullfighter's Guide recommends avoiding these four no-nos in your speech:

  • Obscurity: Avoid message killers like jargon, long-windedness, acronyms and evasiveness. Your voice will be heard if you use plain language and candor.
  • Anonymity: Your personality got you your job. Don't check it at the door. Bring your voice and your charms to your speech and writing. Talk to people in person. Pick up the phone. Don't run your office life through your email inbox.
  • The Hard Sell: Don't over-promise or accentuate the positive and pretend the negative doesn't exist. Businesspeople suffer from information overload. If it sounds like hype, they won't listen.
  • Tedium: Self-important people who "dump prepackaged numbers on their audience" and speak in canned terms aren't well-liked or trusted. People like and want to work with someone who sounds genuine and speaks like a real person. The power of persuasion comes from warmth and honesty, not buzzwords.

"From a career perspective, being a charismatic communicator is a bigger asset than people think," Warshawsky says. "Explain it to someone. If it would make sense to your mom, then you're probably OK."

Key Insight: Unscramble Alphabet Soup

Every business or functional group has its own set of technical terms, buzzwords, abbreviations and acronyms. Insider speak is confusing to new hires and makes them feel even more like outsiders. "When you go to a new company, you need to learn the terms they use," says Warshawsky. "And you need to sort out abusive jargon from functional jargon. ‘Tracheotomy' is jargon, but it means something."

What's a newbie to do? Volunteer to create a glossary if the company doesn't have one already. With your supervisor's permission, send out an icebreaker email asking colleagues to suggest terms and definitions. Interview key staffers -- you'll make valuable connections while acknowledging their institutional knowledge. You'll catapult up the learning curve while demystifying the corporate gobbledygook. Can you spell promotion?

Quick Tip: Give These Five a Rest

Warshawsky's five most overused business-jargon terms:

  • Empower
  • Value (as in "value-add," "deliver value" or "value proposition")
  • Thought leadership
  • Mindshare
  • Customer-focused

Additional Resources

  • Fight the Bull: Bullfighter freeware scans Word and PowerPoint files for jargon. Works best on Windows XP for the PC.
  • Acronym Finder: This searchable database provides millions of acronym definitions.

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