The Rubbish We Speak | Simon Maier

jargon speech bubble

Some American and UK corporate speakers (including costly, professional ones) are increasingly trying to impress audiences with their use of phraseology which many in any audience don’t understand. Senior managers - and therefore junior ones - believe that this practice puts them among the alpha greats. It does not.

The air around the South Bank of London was smelling very strange on the day I was speaking at a London mindset conference. The river maybe? Burgers? Hot chestnuts on fire? Well, I soon forgot about London air and looked forward to the conference. The event was in English and the international attendees spoke and understood English. All the speakers were either American or British. However, the majority of the audience, if asked, would have had to admit to not understanding a fraction of what it heard.

It was during day one that the first alarms rang in my head. Not because of any sharp intake of Jack Daniels, but because of a plethora of jargon. It began with a speaker who said, "All these explanations lack granularity and don’t contain metrics sufficient to let us know if we need a new paradigm". This was matched by someone asking her during the Q&A, "What’s your current view on the agile governance of technology?"

It's easy to dismiss empty language that means nothing more than quirky phrases, but they're more damaging than that. Thoughts shape language and our language shapes our thoughts – and then our actions. Empty speaking not only conveys empty thinking, but sells it, too. Words and phrases are used to give an air of cleverness to the speaker and his/her arguments, but offer no real meaning. Think of ‘paradigm shift,’ ‘synergistic’, ‘wearable multitasking’, ‘data is the new soil’, ‘swim lane’, ‘magic bullet’ or ‘learning receptor units’. (The last one by the way means students. Who knew?) None of these phrases began as, or became, useful, evocative metaphors.

Abstract language leads listeners to believe a speaker is telling untruths or is waffling. This is unsurprising because abstract language evades facts. Politicians and business leaders practice abstraction all the time. The use of flaccid, mangled, verbal nonsense is an attempt at making a point without any idea of what the correct point is or if the point is worth making at all.

Thoughtless chatter and lazy language are often noxious – in any market sector. Their use can create an atmosphere of belligerence and aggression. Maybe ‘killing it’ and ‘bleeding edge’ work (just) in a hyped-up workplace fuelled by testosterone, high fives and caffeine. But that’s all.

Jargon is the specialised language of a professional or occupational group. While such language is useful or necessary for those within the group, it’s usually meaningless to outsiders. In my mindset presentation at the London conference, I was pleased that I had managed to present, without once using phrases such as: ‘touch base’, ‘circle back’, ‘bandwidth’, ‘deep dive’, ‘incentivise’, ‘hard stop’, ‘360-degree thinking’ and similar. As I left for the day, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the South Bank air smelt of roses.