Some of you might be a little puzzled by the headline to this article. What does “spike” mean in this context? It’s derived from journalism jargon in which editors commonly refer to spiking a story - that is, killing it for whatever reason. It comes from days of old when editors and writers used to work with typewriters and correction fluid. Editors actually would have an upright spike on their desks on which they would impale typewritten pages of articles they chose not to use. This prevented the copy (another journalistic term) from accidentally getting mingled with “live” articles.
Folio, morgue, galley, pica, pixel, op-ed are some other terms from my trade that most of you probably aren’t familiar with. I use some of those terms when communicating with the people I work with in our publishing company, but they don’t have much relevance to you folks or anyone else outside of the publishing industry.
When it comes to jargon, nobody tops the folks who work with computer technology. Check out this lead paragraph from a press release that crossed my desk a while back:
“Apriso Corporation, a provider of adaptive software solutions for global manufacturers, today announced Amcor Flexibles’ selection of Apriso FlexNet for global deployment, complementing Amcor’s existing SAP Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. Implementation will initially span more than 20 locations to improve operations performance by providing global visibility to the firm’s production environment and supply chain network. Beyond just a Manufacturing Execution System (MES), Apriso FlexNet will enable widespread unification of all Operations Execution Systems (OES), creating an adaptive operations platform spanning multiple, distributed locations.”
No, I didn’t make that up. I have a master’s degree in English, but cannot for the life of me figure out what the paragraph above is trying to say.
Actually, I bet the writer doesn’t either. I sense that the press release was penned by an entry-level marketing communications person with little understanding of this company’s products. So the person relied on input from the technology experts who may be geniuses when it comes to programming software but don’t have a clue how to communicate what they do to non-geeks.
Jargon arises in every field. It’s inevitable and even desirable. On the job, acronyms and jargon are useful ways to communicate more efficiently than if you had to spell out everything. However, everyone in business needs to be “bilingual” - not necessarily in the sense of knowing a foreign language, but in speaking a different way to customers, prospects and others who are unfamiliar with the details of your trade. Talk to them about thermoplastic polyolefin and elastomeric coatings and you’ll likely get met with blank stares.
Learning this second language doesn’t always come easy. Trades people tend to speak with peers far more than they do to outsiders, so over time their jargon begins to feel like their native language. And it may be very difficult to explain the technical aspects of your work without resorting to jargon.
On the other hand, that’s a poor excuse. Think of it this way: Most of us routinely speak in different languages to different audiences. Your family dinner table conversations about work likely sound different than your lunchtime chats with business colleagues. We explain things to children using different words and concepts than we do when talking to adults. We tend to speak in a more measured tone when addressing bosses or VIPs than when chatting with peers. Males who retain a core of chivalry will mind their language in the presence of ladies. It’s just a matter of applying the same principle when dealing with trade outsiders.
It’s not just technical jargon that gets in the way. The business world is filled with jargon and euphemisms that do more to muddle than clarify meanings. So layoffs become “right sizing,” and nouns get transformed into gooey verbs like optimize, prioritize, synergize, etc.
Frequently people in the business world use jargon to show off their intelligence or inflate their importance (or at least think they’re doing so). In a chemistry lab it’s more likely to be the lower-level staffers showing off their vocabulary in speaking of dihydrogen monoxide. The PhDs will simply say they’d like a drink of water!
In certain circles obscurity may actually be more important than communicating clearly. The quarterly and annual reports of big corporations often get filled with corporate gobbledygook as a way to obscure poor performance, for example. And it’s a lot better to say, “My plate’s pretty full,” than tell a customer you’d rather eat bugs than take on the project at hand.
But that’s not the case when talking to clients, prospects or other persons of influence whose favor you’d like to cultivate. The biggest problem with jargon is simply that it may lead to misunderstanding and sometimes resentment. Most people won’t tell you they don’t know what you’re talking about and ask for clarification. Instead, they’ll nod their head indicating agreement or understanding. Then when something goes wrong they’ll claim you never told them about that. This is how arguments start, as well as expensive lawsuits.
Even if the situation doesn’t get out of hand, excessive use of jargon can lead to mistrust and resentment. Mysterious language can make people feel the wool is being pulled over their eyes or they are being talked down to. Seldom will they make an issue of it aloud, but this is not a good path to relationship building.
Put the shoe on the other foot. Think of how you’d feel visiting a doctor and being told that over-expression of lipoprotein lipase has been implicated in tissue-specific insulin resistance and consequent development of type 2 diabetes mellitus.
Wouldn’t you rather the doctor simply tell you to cut back on carbohydrates?