Ghastly business jargon

by Christopher Steiner, Wednesday, December 16, 2009provided byforbes

Ever leave a meeting and wonder am I supposed to know what just happened? Probable culprit of the confusion: all that mind-numbing business jargon.

After all, the meeting could have been a simple affair to merely touch base, circle the wagons and get people working on the same page. Instead, the low-hanging fruit gets ignored and the intellectual needle moves nowhere. That, of course, limits everyone's bandwidth when the troops really just want to drink from a high-level fire hose while the cement is still wet and the competition is still in the weeds. It's an issue that can bedevil otherwise effective people from soup to nuts and keep them from becoming the kind of game-changing paradigm-shifters that companies need to take it to the next level.

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Using jargon is not only lazy, it clouds the intended message, something best conveyed in concise English. So why does this inscrutable babble persist?

"It starts at the top, where most six-figure, MBA-toting executives could care less that they are not understood by the boots on the ground," says Linda Galindo, a consultant to executives at places from Abbott Laboratories (nyse: ABT) to the Sundance Institute. "Worse, too many leaders today use jargon in an effort to dodge accountability for their own mistakes and failures."

More infuriating is the collective acceptance among the leadership class. "There's a thieves code in the corporate world: 'I'll use words that sound important but make no actual sense and give you the same privilege if you don't call me out on it," explains Patrick Gray, president of Prevoyance Group, a strategy consulting company in Charlotte, N.C. Speak clearly and eschew cliche and you'll set yourself apart, he adds.

Seth Linden, executive vice president at Dukas Public Relations, agrees: "Clear and concise language makes you a better executive. Period."

Linden regularly coaches employees at law firms, investment banks and hedge funds on how to speak to the public. "The key to being a good speaker is being able to speak to everybody at once," he says. Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan had that knack; Barack Obama does too. "If you're using complicated vocabulary and highfalutin imagery, you're going to lose people," adds Linden.

If you don't realize the world is awash in jargon, then you may have fallen under its poisonous spell. Here are words and expressions to avoid—starting right now.

"Learning" (the made-up, annoying noun version)

Like most educated people, Michael Travis, principal of Executive Search for Life Sciences, a headhunting firm, knows how to conjugate a verb. That's why he cringes when his colleagues use the word "learning" as a noun. As in: "I had a critical learning from that project," or "We documented the team's learnings." Whatever happened to simply saying: "I learned a lesson from that project?" Says Travis: "Aspiring managers would do well to remember that if you can't express your idea without buzzwords, there may not be an idea there at all."

"Full Service"

You don't work at a gas station from the 1980s, so why borrow the cliche? "If I hear one more professional describe their business as full service, I'm going to scream," says Deborah Shames, co-author of Own The Room: Business Presentations that Engage, Persuade and Get Results. "Does this mean your investment firm drops off dry cleaning and provides babysitters?"

"Over The Wall"

If you're not wielding a grappling hook, avoid this meaningless expression. Katie Clark, an account executive at Allison & Partners, a San Francisco public relations firm, got a request from her boss to send a document "over the wall." Did he want her to print out the document, make it into a paper airplane and send it whooshing across the office? Finally she asked for clarification. "It apparently means to send something to the client," she says. "Absurd!" Agreed.


This wannabe verb came to prominence, says Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black's Law Dictionary, because most people don't understand the difference between the words "affect" and "effect." Rather than risk mixing them up, they say, "We will impact our competitor's sales with this new product." A tip: "Affect" is most commonly a verb, "effect" a noun. For instance: When you affect my thinking, you may have an effect on my actions.

"Out Of Pocket"

Many auto-reply e-mails now carry the phrase: "I'm out of pocket until next week." Mark Daly, an account manager at the Davies Murphy Group, a marketing firm, isn't sure where the phrase started, but he'd like for its use to stop: "Expenses come out of pockets, quarterbacks come out of the pocket, but Johnny, well he'll just be plain unavailable or out of the office."

"Take It To The Next Level"

In theory, this means to make something better. In practice, "the phrase means absolutely nothing," says Laurent Duperval, who runs an eponymous consulting company in Quebec. "Nobody knows what the next level actually looks like, so how am I supposed to know when I've reached it?"


This word has come to mean everything from the traditional way to solve a mathematical proof to a suite of efficiency-enhancing software—and it is perhaps the epitome of lingual laziness. Says Glen Turpin, a communications consultant: "It usually refers to a collection of technologies too abstract or complex to describe in a way that anyone would care about if they were explained in plain English."

And A Few More, While We're At It…

Utilize: "Use" will do. Tee it up: Not without a caddy. Circle back: We prefer straight lines, or just an appointment to talk again in the future. Synergize: What?! Let's talk "around" that: This is what politicians do. Those who aim to accomplish something must talk about things.