In the new year, lets resolve to use less jargon and bring clarity to our business conversations


It might feel good to use impressive-sounding terms, but jargon often does more harm than good for your credibility as a leader. Learn to remove jargon from your speech so people understand you.

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Image: Gonzalo Aragon/Shutterstock

Jargon has always been a challenge for specialists in their fields. Whether you’re a firefighter, soldier, politician or civic leader, most professions have developed their own subset of language, involving specialized technical terms or different meanings to everyday speech. This is especially true for tech leaders, where a “ping” might mean anything from a network packet to a text message to an elaborately-crafted email.

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Perhaps the most nefarious aspect of jargon is when a popular term becomes clouded and meaningless but is bandied about to knowing nods and respectful agreement among fellow travelers. Words like digital transformation have come to mean everything and absolutely nothing simultaneously. Within the same organization, one person’s digital transformation might be a massive shift in fundamental elements of the corporate strategy, while another person might be referencing a software upgrade using the same words.

Striving for clarity and reduction in jargon is more than just effective communication. Imagine hiring an expensive vendor for a digital transformation when the stakeholders in your organization have very different goals, objectives and expectations for what will be produced. At best, your vendor might implement some half-baked solution that addresses some of your stakeholders’ concerns. At worst, they might blow through your budget, chasing unclear requirements and contradictory objectives.

Look for clarity rather than agreement

The first step to overcoming jargon is to reduce our use of it as leaders. The second step is to seek confirmation and clarity when communicating critical information. For example, if you’re concerned about whether Todd in accounting understands that he’s not going to get a feature he wanted in the new financial software, don’t ask your team whether they’re “managing expectations with accounting.” Ask your team whether Todd understands he’s not getting the feature, and better yet, ask them how they’ll approach Todd and what they’ll communicate.

Simply asking team members how they’ll approach a problem or what they’ll do to fulfill a request will quickly indicate whether you’ve communicated clearly. Preface these questions with a comment like: “I just want to make sure I’m communicating clearly. Could you share your understanding and approach?”

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If you say that you’re striving to communicate clearly, these requests will be met receptively rather than with potential suspicion that you don’t trust your team.

Use this same technique when meeting with peers or leaders within your organization. When someone throws out jargon or an ambiguous term, rather than nodding acceptance and hoping you’ll figure it out later, ask if you can restate their request. Start with a comment like: “I’d like to test my thinking. It sounds like what you’re saying is … .”

Occasionally, you’ll catch a jargon addict throwing out a term they don’t necessarily understand when you ask for additional clarity. This can create an awkward moment, but if you say something like: “I’m glad we’re having this conversation. I know machine learning (or whatever jargon has been offered) means different things to different people, so it’s great we’re all getting on the same page.”

Avoid calling people out on jargon maliciously and correcting technical definitions, or you’ll get a reputation as the “jargon police” and be left out of critical discussions as others attempt to avoid embarrassment.

Try the Mom Test

The ultimate test of your ability to use a technical term is successfully explaining the term to someone without a deep level of industry or technical knowledge. My mom is my typical imaginary example. Before I walk into a meeting ready to extoll the virtues of digital transformation or some other mercurial term, I imagine a conversation where I explain what that means in plain English.

If you find yourself struggling with this task, take the time to understand why. I once heard someone define digital transformation as “transformation, that’s digital,” a clearly unsatisfactory response and one that would fail the Mom Test. Too often, we fall into the trap of regurgitating a term that’s popular in the media, among our presumably smart consulting partners, or with those carrying superior titles. Hopping on the bandwagon might win you a nod of approval but ultimately sets you up for failure as you agree to something that you (and likely many others in the room) can’t fully describe.

If you can articulate a simplified version of what a term means, why it’s beneficial to the listener, and what the risks and rewards are, award yourself a license to operate now that you can educate your audience and create a shared definition.

Clarity of vision and the ability to clearly and concisely communicate that vision are the hallmarks of a good and effective leader, especially in complex fields like technology. While jargon offers the Faustian bargain of sounding intelligent at the moment, you’ll be forced to pay the price when no one knows what you’re talking about.

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