The meaning behind the message
Offices are buzzing with buzzwords. No matter where you work, it’s hard to escape euphemisms, idioms and corporate slang, all of which may impair communication and conceal facts.
Jargon has its place. In some industries, workers use it to gain credibility by signaling to their peers that they belong in the group. When used well, technical terms can improve efficiency by condensing complicated concepts into expressions that are easily understood.
But imprecise language can alienate or confuse co-workers or clients who are unfamiliar with particular turns of phrase.
“It’s the curse of knowledge,” says Kelly Decker, president of Decker Communications. “Those terms mean something to us,” but not necessarily to outsiders.
Read on for examples of office jargon and suggestions for alternatives that facilitate clearer communication.
How to avoid jargon
One way to avoid jargon is to consider your audience before writing or speaking, Decker suggests. What knowledge do they have about the topic you’re going to address? What are they expecting from the message you’re going to provide? If the audience doesn’t share your amount of expertise, take extra care to craft your words so that they inform instead of confuse.
No matter whom you’re talking or speaking to at work, it’s helpful to provide concrete examples to illustrate terms so that the audience can envision what you’re describing. For example, rather than just saying the company will “optimize the utilization of various resources,” point out what exactly those resources are and explain how the company will make the most of them.
“Paint a picture instead of relying on jargon,” Decker says. “That makes all the difference.”
When you grow accustomed to hearing and using jargon, it can be hard to identify it. The following slides offer a glimpse at the extensive vocabulary in the genre.
“Touch base” is part of a jargon family used to indicate interest in meeting and conversing either in person or over the phone. Other relatives include:
— Reach out
— I’ll ping you
— Put some time on my calendar
To be more straightforward, simply ask to talk or meet.
A close cousin of the milder “innovate,” this word basically means “change,” but it connotes grand ambition.
To be clearer (and less of a Silicon Valley cliche), try an old-fashioned word like “improve.”
“Leverage” keeps company with other questionable verbs such as “utilize.”
They’re both trying very hard to add gravitas to the simple word “use,” which is a great alternative to, ahem, leverage in just about any sentence.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.
Corporate leaders have distilled the old British saying into one word, “iterative,” which they use to indicate a project will probably go through a few drafts before it reaches its final form. It is sometimes code for “we didn’t get it right the first time.”
To be more transparent, try explaining that the process may involve revision or will take a few attempts to get right.
In the corporate jargon spice rack, “strategic” is like salt and pepper. Leaders apply it liberally to infuse their decisions with the flavor of credibility.
The word, which means “carefully planned,” is usually unnecessary. After all, what businessperson would admit to being “nonstrategic”? Few are likely to describe their decisions as unintentional or accidental.
“Pivot” seem innocuous enough. But if the boss talks about “pivoting,” layoffs may be imminent. That’s because the word, which means “to turn,” is sometimes used by company leaders as a euphemism for abruptly changing business models — and personnel.
Substitute “pivot” with “try something new” or “change.”
Offering (or threatening) to “circle back” is something of a communication epidemic. People use this phrase to indicate you owe them work or a response to a query.
Eliminate the temptation to use this jargon by simply telling someone upfront about your deadlines. If you don’t hear back in time, feel free to inquire, “What’s the status of your contribution?”
When two entities work together to produce results better or greater than each could separately, a jargon junkie would say they “synergized.”
But those of us trying to abstain would simply say they “collaborated” or “worked together” efficiently.
In the world of agriculture, silos play the important role of storing grain. But in corporate-speak, the word has a negative connotation and is applied to individuals, systems or groups that work in isolation. Departments that function as “silos” are unlikely to “synergize.”
To be clearer, explain that the entities in question “don’t communicate” or “don’t work together” as they should.
If it’s not here yet, it may be “in the pipeline.”
That is to say, whatever you’re referring to is not ready. If that seems too blunt to admit, try saying instead that “it’s still in production” or “I’m still working on it.”
Hiring managers also talk about “talent pipelines” when they really mean a set of potential employees.
If a product or system has the potential to grow in size without much extra expense, it may be “scalable.” So scalable, in fact, that it may help the company “scale up” or even “achieve scale.”
As Merriam-Webster notes, the term vaguely indicates growth. If you’re going to use it, be sure to define it precisely. Like when scaling a mountain, it’s wise to check exactly what kind of resources and effort are required before trying to trek to the top at work.
“Buy-in” is borrowed from the financial sector, where the phrase is used as a verb to indicate the act of purchasing stock and investing in a company.
In the business world, people use the term as a synonym for support, as in, “Let’s get the boss’s buy-in for this project.” It’s a decent comparison, because like buying a stock, “buying into” a project may involve some amount of risk, in this case to one’s work reputation.
But like many a promising metaphor, overuse has pushed “buy-in” into jargon territory. Try using “support,” “approval” or “endorsement” instead.
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