Is Jargon Bad?
Forward-facing innovators can optimize deliverables by leveraging a holistic view of language.
Last weekend I used the word “optimize” while out with friends. My husband nudged me. “You’re using your business jargon in real life again,” he whispered. My work is a nonstop cycle of blogs, articles, brochures, press releases, POVs, web copy and white papers, many of them for clients in technology or management services. It’s no wonder these words are creeping into my daily conversations more and more. But is jargon bad?
Like most people in buzzword-laden professions, I have strong opinions on the specifics. Still, I’m careful not to write off jargon simply because it’s popular. Content that is all jargon is garbage, but so is content that is all metaphors, or exclamation points, or flowery language. Just as metaphors, exclamation points and verbal curlicues have their time and place, so does jargon. Some terms – including “evergreen” and “disrupt” – are actually delightfully tactile. I don’t like “game-changing” or “siloed,” though I’ll admit to using them. On the other hand, “synergy” and “actualize” make me want to pour hot tea over my keyboard and then bang on it with the mug.
It may be annoying, but is jargon bad? As a writer, it’s my responsibility to communicate messages well. Compelling content requires creativity; clarity is even more important. But writing doesn’t simply relay information: Writing relays specific information meant to leave a specific impression on a specific audience. My work must be unique but still aligned with the client’s voice and industry. Because most of the content and thought leadership projects we produce at A.wordsmith will be consumed by our clients’ peers and customers, they must fit the style that those audiences expect. Sometimes, that style is business-ese.
The business-ese code
The process is similar to code-switching. I don’t speak to my boss the same way I speak to my husband. I use a higher pitch when interacting with a three-year-old, and it’s different than the small talk I make with my Uber driver. I say “ya’ll” when checking in with old friends from Atlanta, throw in Yiddish phrases when chatting with family in New Jersey and dampen my energy with colleagues here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not limited to verbal communication, either: Watch how President Obama greets a member of the coaching staff for the US Olympic basketball team and then, without missing a beat, changes his body language to address a player.
The change doesn’t indicate insincerity: Neither of these is “the real Obama.” We communicate differently according to our environment and interlocutors. It’s a practice called code-switching, and it’s a natural feature of language that we unconsciously use to indicate relationships, power and culture.
Business jargon is a kind of code that represents the culture of professional interactions. It uses sleek, trendy, smart language because consultants and tech companies acquire business and impress peers by coming off as sleek, trendy and smart. Using the appropriate verbiage establishes credibility by demonstrating that the speaker (or writer) knows what they’re doing and respects the norms of the environment.
Jargon on purpose
We need to get over the idea that jargon for the sake of jargon is wrong. Jargon actually serves a very specific purpose. It’s a hallmark of poor writing, but it’s also a component of skilled and appropriate business communications. My husband sees optimize as a ridiculous word, and, three beers in on a Saturday night, it is. It would be equally ridiculous to write “try really hard to do our very best” in a formal POV targeting CIOs. The challenge is to distinguish between the two, and then infuse the vernacular with enough energy and charm to make it stand out while still fitting in. Every word has a place, even the cloying business jargon we love to hate.
Except for synergy – synergy is gibberish.