Does jargon make you sound like a leader?

Want to talk like the ‘tall foreheads?’ Use terms like ‘low-hanging fruit’ and ‘evangelize,’ and your co-workers will think you’re a leader, a new study suggests.

When our publisher and chief executive gave me the assignment, I thought: It’s about time.

Mark Ragan, who regularly maligns the jargon-speaking community, wanted me to follow up on a Marketplace story that asserts that using business-specific nomenclature offers major advantages.

I’m sure jargon junkies would agree is overdue in giving them their say. Organizational newsletters and websites are far too lively as it is. Audiences are clamoring for executive speeches interlarded with corporate-speak.

Surely, lingo lovers are asking themselves whether my assignment marks a sea change in Mark Ragan’s approach toward workplace patois. If so, I have bad news. Our top dog threw the story my way because he hates jargon; he’s just morbidly fascinated by the idea that anyone would defend it.

“I have been teaching writing workshops for 17 years, and I have never heard a spirited defense of corporate-speak,” he says.

‘Positively impacting’ the groundlings

So, what about the science of it? Marketplace reports that a new study from the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business found that people who pepper their chats with industry vernacular are assumed to have a higher position within a company. They are seen as better leaders.

There is “something about abstraction that communicates that ‘I’m a big picture person,'” management boffin Cheryl Wakslak told Marketplace. “That’s what we expect powerful people to be like.”

It’s a phenomenon many of us have observed. Train your janitors to say “matrix” and “low-hanging fruit,” and other employees start following them into the mop room to seek their counsel about outsourcing duties to China or resisting that hostile takeover.

It seems the study’s participants get the tingles, as we all do, whenever they hear an exec in a suit talking about “leveraging” this or “blue-skying” that.

Marketplace also cites Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Information, who can be trusted on the topic because he says things like, “I’m not in Kansas anymore.”

‘Different and grander’

Nunberg is quoted as saying that jargon made people feel that going to the office every day was important and epic. “You gave people a special language to speak that suggested that the work experience was somehow different and grander than the experience of ordinary life,” he told Marketplace.

He’s right. I often strip off my shirt in the office and start bellowing Viking war cries when I hear phrases such as “at the end of the day” and “evangelize” (meaning “promote”).

Ignore the naysayers, among them Oxford Dictionaries, which once celebrated National Memo Day (a time of gifts, grog, and good cheer worldwide) with a blog post titled “Incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

Often, writer Catherine Soanes states, “‘corporatese,’ like military slang, is used to obfuscate or to provide a positive spin on disagreeable matters (everyone knows when a company starts talking about downsizing that jobs will be lost). The result? Cynicism reigns supreme or no-one actually understands or cares what’s being communicated.”

The Guardian newspaper has also published a derisive “A-Z of modern office jargon,” with definitions such as “flagpole, run this up the” and “thought shower.” (Please. Not on company time.)

“Drill down into this guide and you could be talking like a boardroom legend by end of play,” the newspaper scoffs. “Massive yield!”

Then again, those of us who love corporate cant might consider using jujitsu on lists like The Guardian’s and The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary. Let’s promote these lists to help our staffs to beef up their vocabulary with jargon like “pain point” and “peanut butter out.” (The latter is defined as “to distribute responsibilities among team members. ‘Let’s meet tomorrow to peanut butter out the tasks.'”)

Believe me, I will be looking for ways to sneak the term “tall foreheads” into my copy from now on. (Definition? Think of Dilbert’s CEO.)

Weird Al weighs in

Here’s a video to get your new hires up to speed with the kind of epic communications you’re looking for: “Weird Al Skewers Corporate-Speak to the Tune of ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,'” complete with a clichéd hand drawing on a whiteboard. (It was brought to our attention by Slate.)

Seeking support for this new, scientifically based approach to buzzwords, I emailed writing maven Daphne Gray-Grant for her thoughts. To my disappointment, she questioned the USC study. Not having read it (it appears to be available only in abstract), she wonders about matters such as sample size, whether there was a control group, and whether the study was randomized.

“Short of reliable science, it’s far smarter to use common sense,” she says. “Would you like a boss who said: ‘Can I ask you to blue-sky that synergy?’ My guess is no. If you weren’t rolling your eyes, snorting into your coffee, or complaining in the photocopy room, you might even start looking for work at another company.”

She’s wrong. She just is. Hearing jargon, most of us feel our work experience has transformed into something grander.

Just ask Weird Al.


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