Saturday, March 28, 2009

Don't Be A Jargon Junky

Jargon, cliches and buzzwords are everywhere. What happened to the good old simple English?

We all use jargon every now and then. Yet, we are all too familiar with the frustration when jargon begins to sound like Greek to us.

Jargon can be good or bad. It is bad when it confuses me. However, the problem is that, no jargon is always good or bad. It depends on when and how it is used.

Jargon is the use of specialized terms, acronyms and abbreviations that are understandable to only a selected group of people. It is well-loved at workplace because we can use it to convey a set of otherwise complex concepts.

When we communicate, we seek to be understood. Jargon should therefore be used as a tool to help us get our message across clearly and not as weapons to confuse, belittle or impress.

The use of jargon can be habitual. That is when we find ourselves in a situation where we use the same jargonistic words regardless of audience. We just cannot find any simpler substitutes. To make matter worse, we can be totally oblivious to the frustration of our audience for having to put up with our gibberish. In this sense, the use of jargon really diminishes the effectiveness of our communication.

Try to make sense out of these lines which are meant to impress customers . . .

"We are a company with a loud ambition, heading for a bold destination. We benchmark with market leaders and leverage on technology to achieve quantum leaps. With our constant horizon scanning, we are the pathfinders in the field and the creators of new paradigms. Our company is multidisciplinary and we offer a menu of options. . . . You are our partners in our journey to pursue our dreams. You can value-add our business and our collaboration can generate immense synergies. You are the fulcrum to bring us to a greater height and yet our vision is coterminous...."

You may know every word said but do you really understand? There are many big but hollow words in there. I just have another equally big word to describe them all - gobbledegook! On the surface, the passage may appear substantial or even impressive but they are actually nothing but strings of words with loose and little meanings.

Even though it is just something I made up, it is not uncommon to find similar hollow statements in many places if you bother to take note. Some are framed in expensive casing making them look really important. Just take a moment to scrutinize, those words behind the elegant frames sometimes are so jargon-filled that they are utterly confusing if not, annoying.

I may have exaggerated but it is common to find people replacing perfectly acceptable and easily understood words with fancy mumbo jumbo. In doing so, they hope to create a more intelligent and more knowledgeable image. More often than not, the impression is a negative one as the audience struggles to understand.

In UK, the local and central government are often criticised for their use of language. The Local Government Association (LGA) is urging the public sector to avoid jargon. Its chairman, Ms Margaret Eaton said that they "must not hide behind impenetrable jargon and phrases." LGA also came up with a banned list of the 200 worst uses of jargon and suggested simpler alternatives. Check it out. You can also take a short quiz (which I failed) to see if you can understand some of these chided words. (LGA is a voluntary lobbying organisation, acting as the voice of the local government sector)

There are reasons (or excuses) why some people use jargon and these are some common ones. Can you find yours?

a) I am communicating with others in my expertise

I supposed this is OK so long as you are sure that everyone really understands. In fact, the use of jargon can help convey specialist information.

b) I am not thinking

You use jargon because it is a bad habit of yours. You speak to people outside your field no differently and you are unintelligible to them. These people include your customers or your family members.

c) I try to impress

If you think the use of jargon creates good impression, good luck to you. In fact, jargon rarely impresses intelligent people. You are more likely to create the impression of "trying to impress" rather than "being impressive". Others may see it as insincere or irritating.

d) I try to distract from facts or knowledge

Some people fall into jargon traps when they want to hide the truth. It is best that you avoid this as it is easily spotted by people more intelligent or experienced than you.

e) I try to distract from lack of knowledge

This may be unintentional. When you are unsure or under pressure, you might instinctively fill your response with jargon rather than give a straight and concise one. Your answers become incoherent and your audience can sense that you are 'smoking'. (Singlish for an attempt to cause a diversion or a confusion by giving intelligent sounding but meaningless answers.)

f) I try to fit

Sometimes you use jargon because it makes you sound like those you want to build rapport with (at least that is what you think). The problem is, you may not fully understand the jargon and thus not using it appropriately. As a consequence, your audience may feel that you are out of place. Instead of building rapport, you end up being distanced.

Like everyone else, I want to be understood and I consciously avoid using jargon when it is not appropriate or helpful. Yet, some of the above do describe me. I will have a long way to go.

The use of jargon is a double-edged sword. It may help you get your point across effectively or it may create unintended confusion to your audience. So, use your jargon wisely.

My advice: Use simple words. For centuries, people say "I love you" instead of "I am immensely infatuated by you" for a good reason. You know what I mean.

Stay simple. Be understood.

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