In the first of two posts, Hari Patience-Davies discusses the advantages and disadvantages of jargon and technical language.
In 2015 I joined a consultancy firm. I was completely new to the industry – prior to that all of my jobs had either been agency or client roles and I will admit I didn’t really know how the world of consultancy worked or how it was going to differ from what I’d done before. One of the first things to strike me was how everyone talked. PowerPoint documents weren’t just slides anymore, they were “decks.” We didn’t just make decisions about a change of direction or focus, we “pivoted.” Every project I worked on was described as a “transformation.” There was a whole new language to learn.
And learn it I did. I assigned people to “pull together a deck” and talked to clients about “how we could pivot” and began talking like a native. I did it because it was a way of fitting in. By adopting the language used by my colleagues I was putting myself squarely on the Us side of the us versus them question – showing that I was one of the team, and, just like them, fully committed.
Adopting the language quirks of people you want to be accepted by is a pretty standard way of making yourself part of that in crowd, or in psychological terms, the in-group. Most of us want to be on the inside of the in-group because to be otherwise is to be outcast (or out-group), and whether it’s a workplace, a social gathering or a sports team, being in is better than being out.
Jargon is not just a modern invention – centuries ago certain trades were controlled by Guilds, and those Guilds used jargon when describing their manufacturing or production techniques to restrict that knowledge to Guild members. This ensured the Guild kept control of their particular trade, while outsiders were firmly excluded.
While we might not be trying to prevent the theft of trade secrets any more, workplace in-groups often have their own jargon and slang. And, that’s fine for you and your group-mates, but the problem with jargon is that it becomes a habit – and when you pepper your conversation with acronyms and abbreviations that only those in the know understand, you may make yourself incomprehensible to everyone else – which includes potential clients and suppliers.
In my later years at that job I took on the role of Storytelling coach, and spent a lot of time trying to get people to ditch the in-group jargon and talk to each other like normal humans. We had a lot of very smart, very technical people who could build and fix incredible things – but they weren’t always great at talking about these digital marvels. They often used overly technical jargon, which made things even harder to understand.
That combined with the international nature of the business, posed a real problem at times. It’s an easy mistake to make to think that understanding the same language is all you need when it comes to presenting to colleagues around the world – but in focussing on literal translations, we may miss the local meaning.
I saw this first hand when delivering training to overseas colleagues. The course had been written by the British, and prior to this particular instance, had always been delivered to British employees. We were asked to open up the attendance list to allow people from Europe and South America to attend virtually, and as the official language of the business was English, and everyone on the attendee list was officially classed as fluent, there shouldn’t be a problem, right?
You may have already seen where this is going.
As the course leader give their introduction I was watching the chat box, just in case there were any questions the attendees had that I should respond to.
The course leader made a joke about avoiding a P45, and the chat box lit up:
“What’s a P45?”
“I don’t know this term.”
“What does P45 mean?”
It was our first, but by no means our last British-ism. It was such an established turn of phrase about losing or leaving a job that the course leader hadn’t made the connection that it was only something a UK audience would understand.
With every phrase the audience didn’t understand, confusion filled the chat box. People felt alienated. What we always need to remember as presenter or speakers is that every word or phrase that an audience member doesn’t understand is a brick in the invisible wall between you and your audience. If that wall becomes too big (even though it’s invisible) your audience will disconnect and stop listening to you.
The simpler and clearer we express ourselves, the easier it is to understand us. This is equally true for both written and spoken communication.
The lesson here is to embrace Plain English wherever possible. Ditch the in-group language in favour of understandable words. Cut out as much techno-babble as you can, and when you do have to use a technical term, be sure to explain it as simply straight away. If you’re presenting to an international audience, review any pop culture references in your content with that in mind – I’ve found that while Spider-man is famous all over the world, Snow White doesn’t travel as well.
There is a time and place for jargon and technical language – it can makes things simpler if both participants in the conversation already know what all of the jargon means. But people often don’t like to admit they don’t know what a word means – it makes us feel less confident to show that lack of understanding – so even if you start a technical conversation by saying “does everyone here understand X” keep an eye on the expressions and body language of your audience to make sure they reflect happy comprehension and not confusion or disconnection.
I find the best thing to do is to ask myself constantly, am I explaining this as simply as I can? It can be very tempting to use long words or fancy language to maybe make yourself sound more knowledgable or cultured but research shows this actually has the opposite effect – as we’ll discuss in Part Two.