For me, it’s “leverage.”
For others, “synergy.” “Value-add.” “Paradigm shift.”
“Our team will leverage core competencies coupled with best-in-breed solutions to deliver world-class learnings aligned to key performance metrics.”
When I read a sentence like this, it’s all I can do not to scream. Or throw something. Or find the person who wrote it and shake them. Hard.
I know I’m not alone. There’s at least one writer who can relate: Steven Poole, author of Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon, filled a whole book. The volume, published in October, is a hilarious, unflinching collection of business jargon’s worst offenders. (I think he’d agree that we could all stand to be more like Ron Swanson.)
When Poole gripes about jargon, he isn’t talking about the specialized terms technical pros need to describe their work. Instead, he takes aim at the more common, cringe-inducing variety: lofty-sounding business-speak used purely for its own sake.
This sort of jargon is a virus of the vocabulary. It’s a code language of epidemic proportions that most everybody uses but no one really understands. Its speakers become schemers in a massive conspiracy to confuse—or mask their own lack of understanding. Nobody calls anyone else’s bluff for fear of being outed themselves. So buzzwords get used more and more, and mean less and less.
Words that bewilder, words that deceive
Business jargon, Poole explains, uses fanciful metaphors that don’t quite register, like “open the kimono” and “low-hanging fruit.” It offers up awful words like “deliverable” that apply to everything and nothing at once. And it appropriates terms from science, warfare, and sport, leeching the meanings they were originally created to convey.
But the biggest problem with jargon isn’t that it makes you sound a little vapid. It’s not even the lingo’s nasty habit of ignoring established parts of speech (since when did “ask” become a noun and “task” a verb?).
It’s that it dehumanizes our work. Verbal sleights of hand conceal what’s really at stake, as when employees get “transitioned” and projects “descoped.” Problems aren’t confronted: “issues” are “mitigated.” And the more we allow these terms to creep in, the more we convince ourselves that they represent reality.
Clear writing says there’s nothing to hide
I know that a world with no “leverage” is too much to ask. And there’s probably no harm in a little “blue-sky thinking” every now and then. Most jargon is hardly worse than the host of other clichés good writers try to avoid. The problem is when it takes over.
As George Orwell wisely wrote more than 60 years ago, “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”
Poole’s point, I think, is the same. What jargon signals, most of the time, is insecurity—a business that hasn’t taken a hard enough look at itself to explain why it exists, confidently and in plain English.
That’s a huge part of our role as business writers. To strip away the doublespeak and the drivel and explain who our clients are and why readers should care. Anything less is a disservice to them. And more importantly, to their readers.
Order Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower? on Amazon. Or read edited excerpts from the book published in The Guardian.
Then leverage key learnings to drive outcomes aligned to…on second thought, don’t.