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The Alchemy of Leadership Blog

Plain Talking

no jargon

Do you call a spade a “spade”, or do you call it a “manually-powered digging apparatus”?

All professions use jargon. Doctors and surgeons sprinkle every conversation with references to obscure ‘conditions’ that the rest of us call illnesses. Lawyers love throwing in Latin phrases such as ‘mutatis mutandis’ and ‘pari passu’. Sailing types go on about sheets (ropes), lines (ropes) and halyards (ropes). Business is no different. Encouraged by management consultants and business school professors, we have all learnt to leverage our capabilities, focus on our core competencies and work on our adjacencies.

We use jargon to communicate precisely what we mean to other professionals. Thus a ‘core competency’ is something subtly different from a ‘core capability’ or a ‘core skill’. To those in the know, jargon helps understanding. Like slang, it’s convenient, quick and easy to use. It’s our common language.

But we also use jargon to signal that we’re members of the club and to exclude others. If I talk to you about an ‘adjacency’ rather than ‘a similar product or sector’, I get to look and feel pretty clever. If you understand what I’m on about, you do too. We both bond a little.

For a business leader, however, this act of exclusion is a problem rather than an advantage. A CEO doesn’t just talk with her or his senior team or others ‘in the know’. Unless the business is very small or specialist, a Chief Executive using this nonsense (or ‘special’ language, if you prefer) will put off the vast majority of the people in the company. They will feel out of the loop, that the senior leaders are disconnected from them. They will switch off.  For this reason, the best CEOs resist the temptation to carpet-bomb their staff with gobbledygook. They use plain English whenever they can, the sort of English they would use down the pub. For some, this comes naturally. For others, they have to work consciously to cut out the managerese.

Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times has made a career out of exposing the worst examples of managerese. The best examples come from the speeches and emails of bosses in the tech industry, particularly the leaders of businesses built around communication itself. My particular favourite is this peach written recently by Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter: “As we iterate on the logged out experience and curate topics, events, moments that unfold on the platform, you should absolutely expect us to deliver those experiences across the total audience and that includes logged in users and users in syndication.”

This is almost incomprehensible to a normal human being. Lucy Kellaway had to ask a ‘young colleague’ what Costolo was on about. The translation? “We want to make money out of people when they are on Twitter — and when they are not on Twitter.” Clear as a bell and short enough to tweet… unlike the original. And in English.

So, please take the time and effort to cut out the jargon. Your colleagues will thank you; your investors will reward you.



This article was originally written by Patrick Macdonald for the Grant Pearson Brown Newsletter.  A more detailed version is available on their website.  Grant Pearson Brown (GPB) specialises in communications helping people to persuade and communicate more effectively.

GPB was co-founded by Ewan Pearson who is a member of the School for CEOs Faculty.

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