''I'll Marry You Tomorrow, but Let's Honeymoon Tonight'': 7 Tips to Say What You Really Mean

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The titles of country songs may be wacky, but Tim McGraw, Emmylou Harris, and other country songwriters could teach us all a thing or two about saying what we really mean. Why do we speak like normal people at home, and then go to work and revert to business gobbledygook?

By the time the average college graduate has spent two years in business, he or she has been brainwashed by an onslaught of meaningless lingo in the workplace. No one is safe. Top executives grow catatonic when called upon to explain what they really mean.

What's the impact? Jargon and meaningless words are driving us crazy, and sometimes driving our businesses into the ground. Many a deal has never been made because a prospective customer didn't really understand how we could actually help them. I've heard sales people say the prospect was nodding his head, appearing to agree. Best guess, though, is that the prospect was afraid to appear stupid, and just pretended to get it.

Jargon is the culprit in the near-misses creating havoc inside our own companies. When employees don't understand each other, it can cost us millions or billions in product development, time to market, mistakes, and breakdowns in communications with clients and customers.

Just for sport, go to a Fortune 500 business website and click on the newsroom. What you'll find is usually gibberish. Here's one that I'll bet even the corporate communications technical writer would probably be hard-pressed to translate. (Company names have been disguised to protect the innocent):

Company A today announced that based on a new IDC report [1], the company achieved the fastest year-over-year growth of the top three vendors in factory revenue in the External Disk Storage Systems market in Q1 2007, growing faster than Company B or Company C. This marks the third consecutive quarter that Company A has surpassed Company B and second consecutive quarter that Company A has surpassed Company C in year-over-year worldwide external disk storage systems revenue growth.

Can you stop using a foreign tongue - business-speak - and deliver a clear, concise, powerful message? Is there hope for getting your entire company to give up the foreign-sounding words and make an effort toward genuine understanding?

The answer, in short, is yes, and the first step is to stop drinking the potion that turns us into Hyde at the office and Jekyll at home. Decide that you will speak the same way to business colleagues as you do to friends and family - in plain English.

Jargon is not just acronyms and strange words. It takes many forms:
  • Phrases people don't easily recognize
  • Invented words, product names, ideas
  • Words that don't belong together in a phrase
  • Acronyms and abbreviations
  • Business words that people hide behind
  • Obscure, flowery, or frilly language
  • Obvious "duh" phrases
Here is a great exercise to bring to your next staff meeting: Have everyone write down five words they consider jargon. Break into small groups, and ask the groups to come up with definitions for those words. After everyone has a good belly-laugh, you will find a few who actually admit that they don't even know the definitions. Even the most experienced people will disagree on the meaning of common industry words and phrases.

There is a place for specific industry words and phrases - in the appropriate setting. Jargon is a useful thing for doctors in the operating room. However, if the physician doesn't translate when he or she speaks to the patient, it creates confusion, frustration, and fear.

For many years I worked in television news. People who thrive on crisis and have to meet drop-dead deadlines (the 6 pm news always starts at 6:00) need to speak in short hand. For example, "B roll" is a term that describes the cover footage that a reporter is "voicing over." This strange term goes back to the good old days when TV camera people shot stories on film; the film operator loaded the processed film on two big reels; the A roll for sound, the B roll for pictures. In a newsroom you'd better know what it means or you're cooked, but it is meaningless to anyone else.

Here's another myth that is important to debunk: Jargon does not transfer throughout an industry. It is often specific to a company, even a division of a company, or a team. The same word or phrase means different things to your colleagues and your competitor across the street.

If you tend to fall back on jargon language, how can you develop the habit of speaking clearly? The first step is to know that it doesn't make you sound smart. People consider you far more brilliant if you can explain complex ideas in simple ways. Steven Hawking is thought of as the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein. In 1988, he wrote A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes. This book explained the evolution of the cosmos for a general audience, became a long standing best-seller, made him a star of movies and television, and established his reputation as an accessible genius.

Know that whether you are an executive, professional, consultant, or technical expert, the most flattering thing anyone could ever say about you is that you explain it so everyone understands. The litmus test may be to ask yourself how you can be an "accessible genius" in your world.

Former New York governor Mario Cuomo, one of the most powerful public speakers of our time, says, "Don't speak until you're sure you have something significant to say…and understand it so well you could explain it to an eight-year-old."

By learning to speak clearly and effectively to any audience, you can guarantee that people will seek you out, and think of you as a person with answers. Imagine what that reputation would do for you, and for your company's bottom line.

About the Author

Suzanne Bates is president of Bates Communications, a communications consulting firm that helps business leaders and executives speak with an authentic voice of leadership and get a competitive edge in business. Her firm's clients include Fidelity, Mellon, State Street, EMC, Blue Cross, Interactive Data, and Cabot Corporation. Suzanne is also the author of Speak Like a CEO: Secrets for Commanding Attention and Getting Results (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005), which has been translated into Russian and Chinese. Prior to starting her successful consulting firm, she was an award-winning television news anchor and reporter. She can be reached at info@bates-communications.com or by visiting www.bates-communications.com.
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