Jargon: losing or entertaining your audience?

Jargon: losing or entertaining your audience?


The other day I was reading an article in The Marketer, the magazine of the Chartered Institute of Marketing. It’s an accessible publication, and pretty low on jargon too for a professional magazine. I am rather desensitised to marketingspeak in any case, so I probably have some blind spots when it comes to marketing jargon.

Nevertheless, when I came across an article on ‘growth hacking’ on page seven, I instantly felt annoyed. It said:

A growth hacker is a person whose true north is growth.

Apart from the fact that the above sentence says absolutely nothing (growth of what? Trees? Debt? Turnover?) it’s full of distracting language.

‘Hacking’ seems to be the latest term for what was once called going for ‘low hanging fruit’ or ‘quick wins’. It sounds cleverer because it has a whiff of the nerdy rather than managerial to it. A growth hacker then would be someone who cleverly starts by doing the things which need doing first to make sure they grow their success quickly and immediately. Old wine in new bottles?

‘True north’? Yep, this term is filed under T in The Ridiculous Business Jargon Dictionary. It means business direction that leads to success.

Let’s translate that silly sentence then:

A growth hacker is someone who starts with the most important tasks first to achieve quick growth and whose business sense is one that leads to success.

Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it somehow. Perhaps jargon does serve a legitimate purpose, so let’s examine it a bit more closely.

Jargon is an exclusive language

Exclusive means keeping some people in and others out of the conversation. Using language that not all people in your audience understand filters out participants. This can be entirely acceptable, for example while testing someone’s knowledge during a formal exam or an interview.

However, if you need to take your audience with you, find out what language would be considered jargon and explain it along the way. You may be surprised what is and isn’t considered jargon! It is a great way to build trust and rapport with your audience even if you feel self-conscious doing it at first.

Using jargon is a bit like swearing

I can get very distracted by jargon which needs interpreting. Sometimes I suspect a presenter resorts to jargon because they need the security blanket of clever-sounding terminology to bolster their talk. Sometimes I think they just don’t have the words to explain what they really mean. When this happens jargon takes on the character and function of swearing: for a lack of language to express what we are really saying or because we are trying to hide something, we employ specialist language to throw our audience off the scent.

Jargon saves time

If its use doesn’t annoy the audience it can be elegant to use jargon. As the growth hacking example above illustrates, jargon can save time by cutting to the chase with a few well-chosen words. Very handy in the age of that 140-character microblog post, the noble tweet. Air traffic control jargon saves millions of lives each day because seconds really do count.

Jargon is creative use of language

Like swearing the use of jargon can be pretty creative and even funny at times. Some terms simply sum up what we think so imaginatively they can lighten up a situation. My personal favourite is the snottogram: the condescending missive sent via email because sender couldn’t possibly say what they had to say to the recipient’s face.

Now, what use of jargon are you ready to confess to? Entertain us in the comments box below.

Jargon: losing or entertaining your audience?

Three types of conversation for your repertoire

Conversation is an umbrella term referring to the many ways people talk with each other:

Conversation con•ver•sa•tion [kon-ver-seyshuhn] noun 

The interchange of thoughts, information etc. by spoken words; oral communication; talk.

A deliberately transactional and neutral definition such as the above doesn’t quite cover the subtleties and different purposes of conversation however.

Three different conversations, three purposes

Imagine a sliding scale of conversation from adversarial and confrontational to a form of communication focused on mutual understanding. At one end we find debate, at the other dialogue, and somewhere in the middle we can see discussion.

Conversation type 1: debate

What comes to mind when you think of the word debate? Jeering MPs in the House of Commons? Memories of school debates and being asked to defend an impossible standpoint?

Cameron and Milliband having a conversation

Debate can be described as a contention in argument or a dispute. The conversationalists in a debate take a position with a view to defend it. It is an adversarial conversation, and opponents make representations to support their argument, aiming to come out on top at the expense of the other.

Conversation type 2: discussion

At first glance discussion looks strikingly similar to a debate: it is a consideration by argument. All parties have a position and offer comments to convince others of its merits. However, there is an important difference. Where the aim of a debate is to win it, the goal of a discussion is to explore and find a solution.

Conversation type 3: dialogue

At the other end of the conversation scale we find dialogue. Dialogue is described by the famous psychologist Edgar Schein as:

a basic process for building common understanding, in that it allows one to see the hidden meanings of words, first by seeing such hidden meanings in our own communication.

This type of conversation does not start with the defense of our own standpoint, but with a readiness to examine it and how exactly we converse. Schein continues:

By letting disagreement go, meanings become clearer, and the group gradually builds a shared set of meanings that make much higher levels of mutual understanding and creative thinking possible. […] In this process, we do not convince each other, but build a common experience base that allows us to learn collectively.

Edgar Schein, On Dialogue, Culture and Organizational Learning, 1993

What Schein is getting at is that by being prepared to let go of our closely held positions we can create a safe space to learn together and find solutions to our problems. To build trust first we have to be aware of our own assumptions and how these shape the way we consider others’ standpoints. The next step is to bravely share what these assumptions are, so that in this conversation we can start going beyond debate and discussion and find sustainable solutions.

Upgrade your conversations

Now, what can you do with all this lovely theory?

Next time when you are talking with someone, listen for the purpose of the conversation for them. Perhaps they will not be moved from their position whatever you have to offer in argument, and the purpose is to ‘beat’ you. If this is not a useful conversation for you, end it, or try to upgrade it.

If the other is more interested in your argument, you have a discussion on your hands. Talk the language of solutions, and you may end up with more than a scoreboard.

If you are ready to take it a step further, share some of your own assumptions and see where the conversation takes you next. Genuine collaboration is a great starting point for innovation.