Why jargon might be ruining your career

By Luke Heilbuth

Rereading George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English language this week, I was reminded of the link between clear expression and clear thought: If a person is unable to write or speak clearly, it’s unlikely they have much worthwhile to say.

So why do we tolerate jargon in the workplace? Think on mission-driven deliverables, leveraging diversity, ramping stakeholder engagement, driving innovation, maximising the customer experience, synergistic outcomes, out-boarding management solutions and socialising key documentation.

Just writing the above forces me to recall hundreds of hours wasted in fluorescent meeting rooms, listening to executives, bureaucrats and consultants drone in language so stale and abstract that it would be incomprehensible to an English speaker from a generation ago.

If you’re similarly haunted, read on. This article offers a theory on how business jargon developed, explains why managers still use it, explains how it erodes our ability to think strategically and offers simple tips to avoid it.

How did managerial jargon develop?

For thousands of years, most people were illiterate peasants tied to the soil. The verbs they used to define their work were rooted in concrete meaning: To plant, to sow, to harvest, to thresh.

There was a clear link between expression and the realities of daily life. A farmer conveyed his thoughts and deeds in easily understandable words and images. He would never dream of iterating healthy seeds into life or ideating a working plough.

The expansion of the services economy gave rise to this kind of corporate guff. As white-collar jobs grew at the expense of traditional agriculture and manufacturing, employees imagined a new vocabulary to talk about their work.

This was understandable in part. Entire industries like social media, HR and IT services had been created from nothing, and new words were needed to better explain the technologies (like the internet) and the trends (like machine learning) that helped fuel their creation.

But business-school academics and the executives and consultants they taught soon overdid it. They set aside simple Anglo-Saxon words in favour of Latin-based ones. Presumably they thought this made them sound smarter. But as Orwell warned, a preference for Latinate language can be about more than style:

“A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Why do managers find jargon useful?

The idea of deception is important because deceit is the lifeblood of jargon, explaining its usefulness and staying power. Management, especially, employs it to self-deceive and deceive others. Let me explain.

Recent studies in psychology show our brain to be a cognitive miser. To save energy and avoid stress, we are programmed to shun effortful, original thinking for less effortful, superficial thinking. Speaking or writing in jargon is the kind of mental shortcut that our brain urges us to take.

We don’t want to spend the time required to craft clear and original language. So we fall back on clichés and buzzwords which sound vaguely intelligent but take no effort to produce. Don’t fool yourself: If you’re using jargon, you’re not really trying.

Or, in some cases, maybe you are. The second reason jargon is useful is more insidious: A number of professionals can’t write or speak intelligently, so they cloak their ignorance in gobbledygook. How else to justify a premium salary?

The task becomes not to convey meaning, but to obscure it, by playing on the insecurities of the listener. Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? Many people won’t question even the most ridiculous assertion for fear of looking stupid.

The jargon-monger is aware of this. He implies that anyone who questions him is just incapable of understanding his profundity. Take the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I’ll leave you to decide whether he deserved an honorary doctorate from Cambridge:

“In the description of the structure called normal, normative, central, ideal, this possibility must be integrated as an essential possibility. The possibility cannot be treated as though it were a simple accident-marginal or parasitic. It cannot be, and hence ought not to be, and this passage from can to ought reflects the entire difficulty. In the analysis of so-called normal cases, one neither can nor ought, in all theoretical rigor, to exclude the possibility of transgression.”

Fine, you might say. Corporates are unlikely to take a post-modernist academic seriously. So here’s another vignette from one of the world’s largest accounting firms. Marvel a moment at the link between consulting fees and value for money:

“We help clients across a range of service industries develop and implement an improved paradigm for managing complexity. Product architectures that maximize the commonalities and minimize the differences help describe the product or service in a way that is extremely useful in both the innovation and delivery streams. The business is simplified by facilitating alignment of the support infrastructure in the delivery stream through focused technologies and processes, and engineered through tailored business streams that segment the “process” support infrastructure typically around stability, predictability, or difficulty.”

At other times, the deceit is born from cowardice. When a CEO uses phrases and words like capacity constraint, rightsizing or transitioning, they’re avoiding starting a conversation with the blunt but honest: “We need to fire some of you”. While they might feel initial relief at avoiding an emotionally charged confrontation, this kind of dishonesty inevitably undermines respect for their leadership.

Why jargon stifles clear thought

If you take nothing else from this article, take this. Jargon makes it impossible to say anything original, honest or interesting. As Don Watson points out, you can’t think in clichés, or convey compelling ideas without images. Bad language and bad thought reinforce each other.

Orwell summed it up well: “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Nothing stifles thought quicker than a glittering generality. You may not have heard the phrase, but I bet you’re guilty of using them. Having written speeches for the Prime Minister, I’ve sinned on this front many times.

A glittering generality is an emotionally-charged word connected to an idea that’s valued in society. Leaders in all fields use them indiscriminately. Examples include freedom, unity, security, democracy, change, innovation, diversity and prosperity.

There’s nothing wrong with the ideas these words convey. All of them are valuable. The problem lies in the fact that they’re employed as jargon in disguise: Abstract, imprecise and intellectually undemanding.

For instance, a leader says innovation is good. The audience accepts the verdict. No-one asks what they mean by innovation, or what practical steps will be introduced to make the organisation more innovative, or whether there are downsides (like automation costing jobs) or what metrics will test whether innovation has been achieved.

Glittering generalities sound compelling in passing, but they’re ultimately dishonest. Don’t speak in hollow platitudes. Take time to explain to your audience what you mean.

How to avoid jargon

Here’s a simple tip for whenever you’re confronted with jargon: If you can’t understand what has been said, ask the speaker to explain it to you simply, as if you were 10-year-old. If they can’t, they don’t know what they’re talking about. Smart people (and why would you want to hire anyone else?) explain complex ideas simply and clearly.

To avoid using jargon yourself, heed this advice from Orwell: “A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?”