The war on jargon: For best results, use a scalpel, not an ax

Communicators advise weaning executives off buzzwords through viable alternatives, not reproaches.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which a CEO returns from a big meeting or has just read an article about the latest business trend and wants to issue a big, companywide e-mail about it, using all the buzzwords he or she has just taken in.

Of course you, as a communicator, must figure out a way to make that e-mail make sense to all the employees who didn’t attend that meeting or read that article.

The best way to do that, communications experts say, is gently.

“You can’t force people to do something that they don’t want to do,” says Sean Williams of Communication AMMO.

The key is to help the executive use clearer language through discussion rather than simply asserting, “That’s wrong.”

“You have to pick your battles,” Williams says. “You have to choose the right time to try to help someone be more clear.”

Questions, not corrections

If an executive has loaded an e-mail or a memo with corporate-speak and you feel compelled to change it, think like a consultant, Williams says. “You have to go at this from the standpoint of asking them the right questions that lead to clearer language.”

Saying something like, “Let’s get rid of the jargon,” is pejorative and possibly insulting, Williams says. “What you’re really trying to say is, let’s make our language as effective as it can be,” he says.

A communicator’s role is to offer alternatives to jargon, says Trent Meidinger, a communications consultant and writer. Although those alternatives may seem obvious to you, they aren’t to many.

“Coming up with alternatives isn’t easy for everyone, so that’s where your expertise and creativity are valuable,” he says.

Because communicators and executives come from different educational backgrounds and have different ideas about how to express themselves, it’s good to set some ground rules, Williams says. Establish who the audience is and what response you seek. “Then, typically, the executive is a bit more receptive to the changes we want to make,” he says.

When suggesting changes, communicators should start by asking how the executive’s phrasing will help get the point across, or why he or she wants it to be worded the way it is, Williams says. If the executive answers with something like, “I want it to sound smart,” you can offer ways to keep the communication intelligent while de-cluttering the language.

For example, if an executive wants to say “leverage,” it probably won’t be too hard to get approval to modify it to “apply,” Williams says. “That’s something that’s not a particularly emotional change,” he says.

Another option is to include explanations for pet buzzwords, says Meidinger.

“Use their favored phrase, and follow it up with a second one in layman’s terms,” he says. “It works in speeches and written communications. Doing so emphasizes the point, and, over time, the secondary phrase might become the executive’s preferred one. “

Meidinger stresses that you can’t eliminate all jargon. So maintain your patience, and recognize successes as they come.

Changing the culture

Williams points out that jargon, which communicators often find meaningless, does have intrinsic meaning among people in certain groups. So it’s important that your corporate style guide defines what constitutes jargon.

“Let’s talk about what it is that actually is jargon,” he says. “When we say we’re being clear, here’s what we mean by being clear.”

When determining when and where to use certain terms, Williams says the best course is to go back to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

“Use the language that fits the audience and the objective,” he says. “Make every word count; omit needless words.”

Consider words and phrases, he says, as meticulously as you do other communication elements, such as typefaces and colors, point sizes, or the amount of white space around your company’s logo.

Organizations need personality, says Robin Farr of the British Columbia Public Service. When they do, their communications will be more human and easier to understand.

“We need to remember that our employees and customers are people, and we should talk to them like people,” she says. “They’ll notice, comment on it, and that will reinforce the practice.”

Using examples of jargon-free communications from other companies gives executives and employees a good idea of what the aim is, says Meidinger.

“Sometimes using jargon is about personal comfort and not wanting to be the one doing things differently,” he says.

Likewise, executives should be the model for other employees when it comes to clear communication, Meidinger says. “Behaviors that get noticed get repeated,” he says. “Genuine recognition from the top ranks is powerful in influencing corporate culture.”

One way to get executives to do that—use peer pressure, says Farr. “Show them examples of execs who have had success or credit for executive communications that stay clearly away from jargon,” she says.

Be the expert

Just as a company’s legal team comprises its experts in law, communicators must be a company’s experts in expressing ideas clearly, Williams says.

That means more than just saying something should be one way, because you know that’s the way it ought to be. You should be able to back up your assertion, he says. You must be able to explain why you want to change an executive’s language and show how those changes will get results.

You could survey employees, for example, to find out whether they know what certain words mean, or you could seek out outside studies into how employees and the public feel about those terms.

Overall, the elimination of jargon should be more than deletion; it should be a valid strengthening of your executives’ communication.

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