Why Jargon Is Bad for Your Business -- and How To Eliminate It
This story appears in the July 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »
Rey Sawan has a good idea. It’s for a food truck selling Lebanese flatbread sandwiches called manaeesh. The twist? While customers wait for their orders, he will transport them to the street markets of his native Beirut using virtual reality. To make that happen, he needs $100,000. That’s why he’s now standing behind a table and in front of a PowerPoint screen in fashionably ripped jeans and a T-shirt, smiling nervously as he starts his pitch. Following a script stored on his phone, he speaks about his capitalization costs, his empirical analysis of average post-transaction customer wait times for food-truck meals and how to leverage VR content as part of the end-to-end value proposition he hopes will ultimately differentiate his business model.
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When Sawan is finished showing his flow charts and listing his financials, Lu Ann Reeb puts on her glasses and consults her notes. “What we lost in what we just saw was that hugely compelling factor of why you want to do this,” she says. “Come here.” She takes away the phone and tells Sawan to turn off the PowerPoint.
“Now,” she says, “just tell your story.”
Reeb fields a lot of pitches, but she’s not an investor. She’s a no-nonsense former TV news producer and communications consultant who now teaches students at Emerson College in Boston. And she’s among the increasing number of experts around the world stepping up to help business students, professionals and entrepreneurs renounce business jargon and start communicating clearly and convincingly in ways everybody can understand. At the end of the semester, her students will go before an audience of students, faculty, family and reporters, Shark Tank–style, with the business plans they’ve spent a year developing. The top three will be given cash awards to start them on their way.
Sawan digests Reeb’s advice, composes himself and starts again, with passion. He talks of “putting people on the streets of Beirut through food, smell and virtual reality.” He reflects nostalgically about his grandfather’s food stall, and an experience of Lebanon most Americans don’t know. “Our mission is to tell the stories of Beirut,” he says. “People will be able to see what I see and smell what I smell.”
When Sawan is finished, there’s a pause. Reeb takes off her glasses and smiles. “Please take a slice of that,” she says, “and put it back into your presentation.”
Actionable. Best practices. Bottom-of-funnel. Buy-in. Circle back. Close the loop. Commoditize. Deliverables. Dividend yield. Drill down. Future-proof. Ideate. Incent. Leverage. Net-net. Operationalize. Paradigm. Scalable. Solutions provider. Top-of-funnel. Top-line metrics.
These are just a few examples of the jargon, gibberish and acronym-ese that increasingly clog the arteries of commerce, confusing customers, alienating potential investors and annoying everyone else.
The epidemic of business jargon may have started innocently -- as when complex concepts needed to be shared among expert colleagues -- but has since taken on a life of its own, with jargon begetting jargon in an endless loop. “It’s easy to be co-opted by the vocabulary of the environment in which you’re working,” says Caron Martinez, an academic at American University who during the summers is a consultant helping midlevel bank examiners at the FDIC forsake jargon for clear language. “You start to speak acronym-ese.”
Once that takes root, it can be abused in all manner of ways. Some people use jargon because they think it makes them sound smart, says Michael Shmarak, principal at Sidney Maxwell Public Relations, near Chicago. “Intellectual chest-thumping,” Shmarak calls it. They opt for needlessly complex words such as “utilize” when they mean “use” or phrases such as “optimize bottom-of-funnel efficiencies” when they mean “close more deals faster.”
“You can always tell an insecure professional by their use of big words,” says Frederick Talbott, who has taught leadership communication for three decades.
Others nod their heads and passively accept such patter out of fear of looking dumb. Jeremy Greenberg, head of the executive advisory firm Greenberg Strategy and an enemy of jargon, tested this once. He asked an analyst at a crowded presentation in New York whether the findings he had shared were “siguous.” The analyst paused and then responded that he’d check. But there is no such word as siguous, as Greenberg knew. “And not one of the whole 30 people said, ‘I don’t know what that is.’
“This is the herd mentality,” he explains. “No one wants to be the person who says, ‘Hey, I don’t know what that means.’”
Others still actually enjoy being part of a team that has its own impenetrable language. That makes matters worse. John Murphy, an MBA who works in online advertising in California and runs a humor site called MBA Jargon Watch, says these words are often used “to obfuscate purposely or to signal some group affiliation. And there, instead of clarifying speech or helping people communicate in a more efficient way, it’s doing just the opposite.”
While jargon overload seems like merely an annoyance, it can also have steep costs -- especially for entrepreneurs. “If a person can’t explain something to me so I understand it as an investor, how in the world can a consumer or a business buyer understand it?” asks Deb Gabor, who has reviewed thousands of pitches from hopeful startups in her role as founder of Investorpitches.com. “That’s where investors totally glaze over. The investor may be thinking that the person may not really know what they’re talking about, because they can’t break it down into step-by-step terms. That’s where you tend to lose investors.”
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Now a movement is afoot to prod business students, entrepreneurs and midcareer professionals into forsaking jargon and speaking like, well, human beings. It’s being spearheaded by business schools in response to employer complaints about their graduates, and pushed by investors tired of trying to translate indecipherable sales pitches. It echoes a years-old effort to help scientists and engineers convey the value of their work to broader audiences that, after all, include the customers, policymakers and taxpayers on whose support that work depends.
“People are just starting to pay attention to this, finally,” says Mary Groves, a lecturer in business communication at the College of Business at the University of Nevada, Reno. “It’s not the point of communication to make yourself sound smarter; it’s about making yourself clearer so you can get what you want.”
In the nondescript, gray-walled classroom overlooking Boston Common, another of Lu Ann Reeb’s young entrepreneurs stands to make his presentation. He wants to build a native iOS application to help people find the nearest public restroom. He thought of it during long hours in his car asa Lyft driver.
When the student finishes, out come Reeb’s notes again and on go her glasses. Native iOS application? “Keep in mind that a lot of your audience will think, What did he say?” Reeb says. “What did he mean?”
Business schools have a very good reason to help their students learn to speak more clearly: because employers have complained that the schools have been fairly lousy at producing graduates who can. “The companies we’re feeding our students into were telling us, ‘Your new graduates can’t persuade anybody,’” says Deborah Good, clinical assistant professor of business administration at the University of Pittsburgh’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business.
While about two-thirds of graduates believe they know how to speak and write clearly, only about a quarter of the people who hire them agree, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That’s an even more troubling disconnect at a time when complex new tasks such as data analytics demand clear explanation. (“The tech guys are the worst,” says Reeb. “They just think everybody knows what they know.”) So Vanderbilt has started to require that students practice writing business plans before they take a lingo-laden course. To improve their public-speaking skills, they’ve also been made to get onstage and take a stab at stand-up comedy, with its do-or-die need for active listening, crowd-reading, and perfect timing and delivery.
The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business uses improv to do this, as well as acting-class techniques. All the students in Purdue’s Krannert School of Management have to take courses in the university’s school of communication. Students at the Farmer School of Business at Miami University are required to take two business communication classes, and to write about business research in clear, concise ways that both wonks and laypeople can understand. And Fordham puts its business students in a simulated television studio to explain to a mock cable-news reporter, in five minutes or less, why their fictional CEO is innocent of insider trading; the interviews are then critiqued by New York City journalists and PR pros.
The effort isn’t limited to academia, however. A whole industry has emerged outside the classroom to help midcareer professionals and entrepreneurs learn how to connect with real people. There is an army of pitch coaches like Gabor, online communication courses from the likes of Dale Carnegie Training and workshops offered at industry conferences and by membership organizations including the American Management Academy and the International Association of Business Communicators. All are pouring resources into showing businesspeople how to better connect with colleagues and customers.
These reformers face an uphill battle. That’s because the worst offenders are often unaware they even have a problem. “It’s not till they’re standing in front of an audience that they realize nobody understands them,” Josef Blumenfeld, a communication consultant with clients worldwide, says as he waits at Newark Airport to board a flight to Tel Aviv to work with clients there. “They may have high-profile MBAs, but they can’t speak to normal people. Unfortunately, that keeps people like me employed.”
So how do you break through those high walls of multisyllabic jargon? The experts are blunt.
“Dumb it down. Dumb it down. Dumb it down,” says Blumenfeld. “You want your grandma to understand it.”
And dumb it down they have. Talbott, the man who brought stand-up comedy to Vanderbilt (he has since moved to the University of Richmond), focuses on what he calls the five C’s that all entrepreneurs should have in their heads. Business communication, he says, must be clear, concise, complete, correct and compelling. Heidi McKee, director of the Howe Writing Initiative at Miami University’s Farmer School of Business, has six C’s: clear, coherent, correct, concise, confident and considerate.
Groves assigns her budding executives to take an overly long, badly written memo from a fictitious colleague in the accounting department prattling on about expense reports and revise it into a four-sentence email. Try it, she counsels; it’s amazing how many extra words tend to show up in business communication. Shmarak preaches what he calls the five-sentence rule. That’s the length to which he says any business email or memo should be limited. Martinez tells clients to write to the specific audience. A note to a CEO should differ from one to a client.
Jeremy Greenberg’s solution is something he learned as a college debater: signposting. That means laying out exactly what will be discussed in meetings or covered in a written document. “Signposting is as simple as saying, ‘I’d like to talk to you today about the four categories of jargon.’ You’re giving someone a very basic road map: what’s going to be discussed, when it’s going to be discussed. A lot of times with business presentations, there’s no arc or guide.” Making a presentation, verbal or written, he says, can be compared to serving an apple. Don’t just hand people the apple. Wash it and slice it into pieces for them.
PR guru Shmarak illustrates this more effective method with an example from an unusual source -- The Muppets Take Manhattan. In the movie, executives of a soap company struggle with a slogan. Again and again, they try long and convoluted concepts too smart for their own good.
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Then Kermit the Frog suggests one: “Ocean Breeze Soap will get you clean.”
“You mean, just say what the product does?” asks one of the executives, bewildered.
“No one’s ever tried that before,” says another.
Back in Reeb’s class, there are two weeks to go until Emerson’s College Entrepreneurship Expo, where students will give their presentations to a larger audience for a chance to win financial backing. (Sawan won’t win that day, but his Lebanese-food-truck idea will earn him a $1,500 scholarship toward his final year at Emerson.)
For now, however, the students are still rehearsing. They arrive in baseball hats and sweatshirts, take out their earbuds, and settle in. One stands up to make his pitch -- an app called Aisles to help busy customers track down what they’re looking for in supermarkets. Busy millennials, his research shows, go to whichever store is closest (his app helps them find that, too), and often for just one item they have trouble finding on the acres upon unfamiliar acres of shelves. At least one small supermarket chain is already interested in teaming up with him.
He finishes, and Reeb, as usual, makes him do it again. She hammers away at digressions, bans wordiness, heads off complexity and vetoes equivocation.
When she’s satisfied, she takes off her glasses, looks up from her notes and smiles.
“Now I get it,” she says.