Phrases like ‘ideas shower’ are not only grating on the ear; they’re bad for business. But stopping people using the latest buzzword is a challenge.Phrases like ‘ideas shower’ are not only grating on the ear; they’re bad for business. But stopping people using the latest buzzword is a challenge. Click To Tweet
For anyone wanting to unsettle an audience with a turn of phrase, there’s plenty to inspire in the lexicon of corporate jargon. Republican representative Jason Chaffetz did this to significant effect when calling for Donald Trump to reveal his tax returns in the run-up to the US presidential election, by telling him: “open your kimono and show us everything”.
Along with “open the kimono” the business world has brought us “one throat to choke” meaning the person ultimately responsible for a failed project and “punch the puppy” – doing something that’s hugely reprehensible but good for business.
“There’s often some sexual innuendo or violent component to corporate jargon, which is not good,” says David DeParolesa, the head of product for Give Lively, a company that creates digital products for social benefit. Having been exposed to business-speak in previous jobs at big companies such as American Express, DeParolesa was inspired to create a piece of software called SwearJar to combat jargon. SwearJar, which ran on the group chat app Slack for a year, automatically donated money to charity on a company’s behalf whenever co-workers used swear words or corporate doublespeak while chatting together online.
“The firms that were using [SwearJar] tended to be smaller companies that were exposed to jargon from bigger clients,” says DeParolesa. Some of the commonly used buzzwords picked up by SwearJar included “synergy”, “ideate” and “circle the wagon”, according to DeParolesa. “There is something off about every one of them,” he says.
A survey last month by Londonoffices.com revealed phrases that annoyed office workers most included “blue sky thinking” and “ideas shower”. But if doublespeak is deemed so irritating why do we continue to produce so much of it? Andre Spicer, a professor at Cass Business School and author of Shooting the shit: the role of bullshit in organisations, puts it down to the rise of meaningless work, or what anthropologist David Graeber has termed “bullshit jobs”. A YouGov survey showed 37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless. “When we move from producing goods and services to making things look good, an economy of persuasion, we often get this boom in jargon,” Spicer says. He also credits the increase in “pseudo-experts” across sectors from recruitment to hospitality. “As a result, these groups develop their jargon to show they are experts,” he says.
The larger the organisation, the more likely it is to be mired in jargon, which can be bad for business. Employees on the receiving end can feel confused and alienated. “It can be a way of avoiding an issue so key issues get covered up,” says Spicer. One notable example of this was former Nokia boss Stephen Elop’s 1,110-word jargon strewn email to staff which contained just two lines towards the end mentioning that the company was making 12,500 job cuts. “The organisation was so bogged down with its own jargon, it wasn’t able to adequately respond to what it was set up to do – produce mobile phones,” says Spicer.
All the more reason for organisations to stamp it out. Some companies work with the Plain English Campaign or external agencies to help them talk clearly to customers. Yet the Plain English Campaign is never short of candidates for its annual Golden Bull award for outstanding examples of corporate gibberish, such as a letter from Philips Lighting to a customer with this opener: “Dear Neil, did you know that technologies and standards are evolving rapidly in the dynamic, smart city environment?”
Mockery is one way to make people hesitate before “reaching out” for the right buzzword. Speaking in jargonese is one of the aspects of life in the tech industry sent up by the HBO satire Silicon Valley. In one episode, a startup owner says: “A few days ago, when we were sitting down with Barack Obama, I turned to these guys and said, okay, we’re making a lot of money, and yes, we’re disrupting digital media. But most importantly, we’re making the world a better place. Through elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility.”
The show helped inspire the creation of tech jargon dictionary Valley Speak by Rochelle Kopp and Steven Ganz. Kopp and Ganz had initially compiled a dictionary translating US tech slang for Japanese people, but after watching the show, they realised English speakers needed just as much help. “There were at least half a dozen words from our book in every episode. We thought if someone watching didn’t understand these words, they wouldn’t understand the show,” says Kopp.
The Twitter account Douchebag Strategist generates marketing jargon from random phrases, showing how similar automated nonsense is to what people in that industry are actually saying. Andrew Adkin, the managing director of digital marketing agency GI Insight, is attempting to cut jargon by directing employees to speak plainly when talking to clients. “I’m trying to make what we do as accessible as possible, and one tactic is to take it back to basics,” says. “It’s about not getting wrapped up in ‘sophisticated solutions’ and words like ‘omnichannel’.”
Dylan Williams, the chief strategy officer at ad agency Droga5 London, admits that trying to avoid ever dropping the odd buzzword is a challenge. “As much as nobody likes to use phrases like ‘paradigm shift’, in certain contexts, it’s pretty useful,” he says. But, he argues, as ridiculous as marketing speak can get, the language of management consultants can be much more insidious. “‘Rationalisation’ and ‘streamlining’ are all ways of saying firing people without having to confront that reality directly,” Williams says.
While jargon is less likely to be an issue for smaller enterprises, it still needs to be monitored. Spicer advises business owners to limit dropping buzzwords into conversations, like for example, only using it with bigger clients and “not in day-to-day operations”. “There are lots of resources to waste on jargon in large organisations but not in small,” he says.
Lee Monk, the spokesman for the Plain English Campaign, has this warning: “Don’t try to impress, try to inform, and avoid acronyms, abbreviations, glib neologisms and words that are irrelevant. Jargon never impresses those trying to decipher it.”Don’t try to impress, try to inform, and avoid acronyms, abbreviations, glib neologisms and words that are irrelevant. Jargon never impresses those trying to decipher it. Click To Tweet