lost in translation

Navigating the Lexical Landscape for Effective Communication 

Jargon is everywhere and while it can serve a useful purpose it can mask meaning and alienate outsiders

Everybody hates jargon. And yet, most of us probably find that within the course of a working day, common corporate buzzwords and industry-specific phrases spill from our lips. Deep down, we may even like it. Jargon gives us a sense of belonging. If we understand the lexicon of corporate life, we are clearly “in the know.” We are plugged into a way of working and talking that outsiders don’t really understand.

But is that really a good thing? You could argue that the words and phrases used within a particular industry are a product of organisational culture and are, therefore, part of the glue that binds team members together as a working unit. On the other hand, jargon often gets in the way of clear and unambiguous communication. Slick-sounding phrases that may or may not mean something to insiders often confuse, frustrate or annoy the wider population. More damagingly, Jargon can deter key groups of people, including customers and potential job candidates. Persistent “management speak” may also foster cynicism among employees.

In other words, jargon has pros and cons and that begs a question. Should we embrace or eradicate it?

So what are we talking about here? Well, the dictionary definition of jargon is usually something along the lines of “industry-specific language used by people within a particular profession.” Very often, it takes the form of a shorthand word or phrase that is used to quickly reference something that is actually quite complicated.

Useful Shorthand

As such, you could say that within the IT industry the term “agile development” is a kind of jargon. Those within the industry know what it means. Outsiders, on the other hand, will pick up only that it has something to do with agility. Similarly, management consultancies have their own lexicon. A term such as “critical path” might be thrown into a conversation. A consultant will know it refers to the key steps that are necessary to deliver a goal, but it won’t mean much to the public at large.

This kind of shorthand can be useful to professionals who share a common language but jargon has a way of reaching beyond its original context and entering the wider corporate vocabulary. Today, jargon is part of everyday workplace discourse, and the impact on communication has been mixed.

Feeling the Buzz

If you’ve sat in a meeting recently – regardless of the industry you work in – you may have been invited to “think outside the box” or better still “leverage some out-of-the-box thinking.” Later in the day, you might have secured some “facetime” with a junior or senior member of the team before “drilling down” into some recent research.

These are phrases that have become cliches, but they are still used, partly because they have an aura of professionalism. This is not the language of day-to-day-life. It is, for the most part, workplace speak.

In a 2023 article for the NeuroLeadership Institute, Laura Cassiday acknowledges the “seductive power” of jargon. As individuals, we may laugh at those who deploy expressions such as “soup to nuts” but then find ourselves using the same phrase later in the day, she says.

On the face of it, that seems harmless enough and it reinforces our membership of the organisational tribe we happen to be in at any given time. But as Cassiday points out, falling back on jargon is no substitute for clear and concise speaking.

She cites the example of a manager calling on team members to give 110 per cent. Now, everyone knows the exhortation is to work hard to get a job done. But what does that actually mean? Working late, working on Saturdays, or working more efficiently?

In that respect, jargon can mask meaning. But perhaps more damagingly, jargon can be used by those who don’t understand a topic particularly well to create an aura of superiority. Forbes noted earlier this year that business leaders often use insider words to make themselves appear more knowledgeable than they actually are. It’s a tactic that a CEO might deploy when talking to journalists or to junior members of staff. Whatever the context, it gets in the way of genuine communication.

According to Forbes, we should all be asking ourselves whether the words we use promote clarity.

External Communications

Jargon can be a real problem when it comes to external communications. For instance, when e-learning platform Preply carried out a survey of 1,000 working Americans, it found that certain words and phrases present in job ads actively deterred candidates from applying for posts. Among the worst offenders were “fast-paced environment, ninja, guru and rockstar. References to the workplace being “like a family” were said to be the most annoying.

But what about those useful jargon phrases – the ones that actually do mean something to professionals working in specific industries?

Well, there is perhaps a trap that is all too easy to fall into. Because certain figures of speech are commonly used by professionals within a sector, the assumption may be that they will be transparently meaningful to the population at large. Thus, an IT company might highlight its agile development capability on its website without any real explanation of what that involves. The non-professional reader is baffled.

Jargon isn’t a bad thing. Between professionals, it certainly makes sense to deploy technical language, assuming it is understood by everyone in the room. In the wider workplace, it’s part of the bonding process. But it shouldn’t stand in the way of clarity.