Jargon in Business Writing

by Craig Shrives

If Your Reader Thinks It's Jargon, It's Jargon

Here is a good definition for "jargon":
"Special words used by a particular group that are difficult for others to understand."

Is Jargon Good or Bad?

Should you use jargon? Well, yes and no. Using jargon is an efficient way of communicating if you're talking to someone in your group, but it's a disastrous way of communicating with people outside your group. So, don't use jargon on outsiders. Simple.

The problem, unfortunately, is more complicated than that because it's not always easy to determine who's in your group and who's not. For example, an oil company that wants to hire a percussion rotary air-blast drilling rig (whatever one of those is) from your company can probably handle lots of jargon relating to the equipment and the environment it's needed for. However, the insurance company covering your workers in that environment would need a jargon-free version of the drilling activities.

Know Your Audience

To avoid incomprehensible jargon, you must know your audience. You mustn't automatically think your readers are like you. If you do, you are Mirror Imaging, and that's a certain path to writing a hard-to-follow document.

The way to overcome Mirror Imaging is Red Teaming. This is a technique that involves pretending to be the people you're examining (or in this case, writing to). Business writing is about getting the job done. Writing stuff the reader can't understand does not align well with that aim at all.

To a reader, jargon often looks like superfluous detail or clouding, and it can make the reader suspicious. George Orwell captured this idea neatly:
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words...like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
(English novelist George Orwell, 19031950)
Blurting superfluous detail is also a technique people use to mask a lie, and humans have learned to become wary of people who do that.

Jargon, by definition, tells your readers they're not in your group. It can make them feel excluded, and that can't be good if you want them to do something for you. The other kind of jargon is business speak.

Business speak does not fit well with the standard definition for jargon because its use doesn't lead to a lack of understanding. It does, however, lead to groans from your readers or, more usually, your listeners.

Here are some examples of business speak:
  • Out of the loop
  • On the same page
  • Synergy
  • Drill down
  • Think outside the box
  • Win-win
  • Low-hanging fruit
  • Work smarter
  • Hit the ground running
  • Reinvent the wheel
  • Blue-sky thinking
  • Push the envelope
  • Pre-prepare
  • Touch base off-line
  • Increased granularity
  • Not enough bandwidth
I once heard this in a meeting:
"a synergistic systems-of-systems approach to leverage a long-term solution"
The talker was serious too!

Using these terms is not as bad as using unintelligible jargon, but so many people tell me they're turned off by them and so many people (incorrectly) classify them as jargon, they warrant a mention.

You will of course have heard about Business Bingo, a game in which meeting attendees armed with lists of these expressions tick them off as they're spoken by the presenters. That game has done little to improve the acceptance of these terms, but I think some of them are quite efficient. Take "low-hanging fruit" and "push the envelope." They express ideas that would otherwise take far more words to explain.

Personally, I don't think of these business-speak terms as tired metaphors, but many people do. So, where does that leave you? Should you use them or not?

Here's my advice: Use them at will in meetings, informal briefings, and peer-to-peer emails, but avoid them in formal writing.

Newer "Business Speak"

As well as efficient, these terms can be fun, especially when first heard. Here are some newer computer-related ones:
  • Mouse potato: Like a couch potato, but relating to a computer, not a TV.
  • Percussive maintenance: Fixing by whacking.
  • Plug-and-play employee: Someone who doesn't need training.
  • Plug-and-pray employee: Someone who still needs training.
  • Treeware: Paper.
  • Uninstalled: Fired (also, decruitment).

Format, Word Choice, and Grammar

The effectiveness of your document will also be determined by the following:

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