Jargon exists for two reasons, the old saying goes. The first is to make people who don’t understand it feel like idiots, and the second is to make people who do understand it look like idiots trying to explain it. Where politicians have their slogans, those of us in the business world have our buzzwords.
‘Buzzword Bingo’ isn’t a new concept – the world of business has always been prone to phraseology with a tendency to baffle the unfamiliar. In the legendary 1957 film Twelve Angry Men one of the jurors is an advertiser who cracks a joke about ludicrous jargon in the world of advertising, telling the room that instead of his manager asking how an idea has been received, he insists on saying ‘Let’s run this up the flagpole and see who salutes it’.
Whilst language has always evolved and new phrases have come into being, I’d wager there’s strong support within the business community to reconsider some of the phrases in the BBC article on business jargon used at the World Economic Forum which I’ve linked in below.
Indeed, far from being ‘professional’, much of this jargon is clearly quite the opposite if it riles so many of us yet we continue to use it indiscriminately. Why say ‘Going forward’ when we can say ‘In future’ or ‘from now on’, and why say ‘think outside the box’ when we can say ‘think laterally’?
It's usually advised to never read the comments section of anything you find on the internet - but on this occasion I think anybody involved in the recruiting process can benefit greatly from doing so. This is clearly a hot topic for the entire business community - people who read job specs, listen to pitches, and filter through CVs alike. The feeling being expressed in the market is that jargon needs to be abolished 'soonest', and we can all do our bit to help by thinking about the words we use in all business communication.
I remember a prospective client taking me to task over my use of buzzwords during my third week in the job - it's a conversation I've never forgotten and will always be thankful for - because I didn't realise I'd picked up using these phrases having heard them said around me. Now I'm conscious of it, I make a concerted effort to use plain English wherever I can - though it's the duty of those of you reading/hearing what I say to 'highlight scope for transformative impact'.
One book I recommend to everybody I can is Lucy Kellaway’s inspired novel Martin Lukes: Who Moved My Blackberry? – the story of one year in the life of a middle manager who embraces every passing fad he can lay his hands on whilst climbing the corporate ladder, told from the perspective of the emails sent to and from his Blackberry. In the entire year the reader never finds out what Lukes actually does, or even the industry his employer operates within. The litmus test I’ve given myself is to ask of every phrase ‘is this something Martin Lukes would say?’ and if the answer is yes, I find a way to convey the same message more conventionally.
And since ‘Bafflegab’ doesn’t appear anywhere in the book, that’s how I’ll be referring to all jargon ‘from now on’…
Earlier this year, when we set about to demystify some of the worst business jargon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, we could not have imagined it would hit so many of our readers' raw nerves. But perhaps the wittiest critique came from Charles Crowe, who maintains that "all these explanations lack granularity and do not contain metrics sufficient to let us know if we need a new paradigm". We have taken that on board, Charles. Pete S wondered what we should call this jargon: "When my father worked in the Pentagon in the '60s this claptrap was called 'bafflegab'.