From “touching base” (talking to someone) to having some “blue-sky thinking” (really creative thoughts), the world of business is awash with management speak – and nearly all of it is pointless jargon that gets in the way of proper communication and understanding.
Using such phrases in the office, though still unnecessary, is one thing. However, it’s when business jargon infiltrates the way we communicate with our customers – such as through our content, our signage, or even our conversations – that it becomes a real cause for concern.
So why is business jargon such a bad thing?
The absurdity of “punching a puppy” or taking a “thought shower” (translations available here) is widely recognised in the countless articles – and even complete websites – that poke fun at such corporate gobbledygook.
The serious side, though, is that using business jargon with customers alienates the very people you are looking to attract.
Speaking to Forbes, academic Jennifer Chatman argued that “jargon masks real meaning… people use it as a substitute for thinking hard and clearly about their goals and the direction that they want to give others.”
It’s a topic that Katherine Wildman, creative and commercial copywriter at North East-based Haydn Grey, is similarly passionate about. Indeed, she admits that even copywriters are “a victim of our own anti-jargonness – we should really just call ourselves writers.”
Echoing Chatman, Katherine explains that “jargon is lazy because you haven’t thought about where your customer is at, or how they feel. The key is that you’re a person, but jargon makes things cold, generic and corporate – and a bit naff and samey.”
In the midst of a UK general election, those criticisms are something that we might level at our politicians as well – they, after all, are masters of the art of saying something that, once you pull it apart, actually tells the “customer” nothing. In politics, that can be deeply frustrating, but there’s not always a great deal we can do about it. In business, though, consumers typically have more alternative options if they don’t like – or even understand – the messages that are being communicated.
With this in mind, the alternative to jargon, Katherine argues, is to “drill down to the details of your business and express the unique ways in which you meet your customers’ needs. It’s about being authentic – being consistently yourself, and owning yourself.” So, for example, rather than merely saying that what you offer is “exciting” or “innovative”, you should be helping the reader understand for themselves why that is the case.
Katherine has her own views on the most irritating and unhelpful business jargon, so we pooled our ideas – and did some out-of-the-box thinking (sorry) – to come up with a few of the words and phrases that you really need to think more than twice about ever using.
Described as the “epitome of lingual laziness”, there’s probably no single bit of business jargon that has caught on in recent years as much as “solutions”. However, just because everyone else is doing something, it doesn’t make it right.
“Solutions” are supposed to be answers to problems, yet those who insist on peppering their content with the word are often the weakest at explaining just how their products or services actually help the customer.
Too often, in fact, “solutions” is seen as a short cut for making a business sound more impressive than it really is – whether that’s “car solutions” (a car dealership, pictured), “woodworking industry solutions” (posh screws), or “business objective focused creative solutions” (anyone’s guess).
Katherine is clear that “to counteract jargon, start with two questions: what do you do, and why should anyone care?” Certainly, as Andy Crestodina notes in this article at Inc., "no-one goes to the Internet and searches for a 'solution’”.
So, think instead about what you’re really offering, how it excels at giving the customer something fantastic that they can’t get anywhere else, and use that as the starting point for describing the offer in clear, compelling terms.
Another buzzword that has become very popular – and overused – of late is “bespoke”. It’s a term that used to be the preserve of Savile Row tailors, but has since started to be applied to almost anything that is created for a particular customer or user. Worse, Google lists over half a million references to “bespoke solutions”.
Surely, though, the aim of any customer service – “bespoke” or not – should be to delight the customer and meet their particular needs?
Indeed, as The Journal reporter Graeme Whitfield noted in an article last year, the use of “bespoke” becomes especially nonsensical when applied to services that can hardly be anything else, such as hairdressing.
Katherine agrees: “Look at your business, and think whether the cliché could be applied to any business. If so, don’t use it!”
Whenever something is unexpectedly cancelled, closed or delayed, there’s a pretty good chance that it will be flagged as being “due to unforeseen circumstances”.
For the customer, though, it’s a meaningless phrase that tells them absolutely nothing about why the product or service they are looking to access isn’t available. Rather than informing, it risks making the frustration worse.
You can’t necessarily go into full detail in every situation, but a customer is more likely to come back to your business if you’re honest and upfront about why something has gone wrong.
There are few industries more at risk of “unforeseen circumstances” than the railways, but Katherine highlights Virgin Trains as a business that usually gets its messages right. “Just say what happened. It’s so much nicer when a company does that properly. Say something useful, as even if it just makes you smile a little bit, it takes away the frustration.”
“Reach out” – jargon for “make contact” – is another phrase that is regularly highlighted as one of the most annoying in business. However, that’s not enough to stop it being rife in (usually unsolicited) emails and LinkedIn messages.
People tend to use “reach out” because of the supposed warm, fuzzy feeling that it engenders, and the sense that in “reaching out” they are somehow doing you a favour – usually at the same time as pinging over the spammiest message possible. It might sound fluffier, but it’s no substitute for writing an email that is warm, targeted and relevant.
As the well-shared meme that asks “Is it acceptable for me to use the term ‘reach out’ in the workplace?” puts it, the answer is only “yes” if you’re a member of the Four Tops.
“Business jargon excludes”
In conclusion, Katherine is clear about why businesses need to stop using jargon. “Business jargon excludes, and wastes people’s time. There is a risk of alienating the audience by trying to be everybody but being nobody, and forcing customers to wade through an impenetrable fog of clichéd nonsense.”
It’s not as if avoiding jargon is that difficult – often it’s just a case of taking a step back, and letting someone neutral see what you’ve got planned.
“Think about whether X or Y works better at telling the reader what they want to know”, suggests Katherine. “If you’re stuck, give it to someone else in the office, or someone who doesn’t work in the business at all. Let it rest for the day, and you might come back to it with a different perspective.”
And if all else fails, and you still can’t stop yourself hiding behind jargon? Well, there is always the option of hiring a good copywriter to do the hard work for you.
Written by Graham Soult
Photograph by Graham Soult
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