There’s a scene in the movie where an officer and a general are standing over a mockup of an enemy military installation. The officer proceeds to explain the mock-up to the General, played by Lloyd Bridges, in rapid fire fashion using every possible military acronym and expression know to mankind. Upon completion of the explanation, the General looked at the officer and said: “I don’t have a clue what you just said!”
When I saw this scene it immediately reminded me of one of the first business meetings that I ever attended. It seemed as though every second word used in that meeting was either an acronym or some strange business expression that I had never heard of before. I left the meeting feeling confused, frustrated and uniformed. I felt like I had to learn a new language to be able to communicate in these meetings.
If you’re like me and can’t understand half of what your colleagues are saying in meetings, take heart-you are not alone.
A recent survey of a thousand office workers in Britain was published by a firm of recruitment consultants called Office Angels. It reported that 66% of employees used unnecessary jargon terms, for the usual reasons of wanting to confuse opponents and seem superior. But 40% of those surveyed found it irritating and distracting, and 10% thought it made the most frequent users sound pretentious and untrustworthy.
This is nothing new or startling. But the list of buzz phrases that were reported as being at the same time most common and least understood was intriguing:
Low-hanging fruit, e-tailing, talk off-line, blue-sky idea, win-win situation, think outside the box, holistic approach, level playing field, sanity check, put to bed, whole nine yards, helicopter view, gap analysis, touch base, rain check, sing from the same hymn sheet, finger in the air, get in bed with, big picture, benchmark, ballpark, ticks in all the right boxes, strategic fit, bread and butter, push-back.
Phrases like rain check, ballpark and touch base may be familiar with those who play the game of baseball, but could confuse others who don’t know anything about it. For example, a rain check is the name of vouchers given out by stores when special offers are in short supply.
Some terms are odd and would stop almost anybody for a moment-low-hanging fruit, for a target that’s easy to reach, helicopter view, for an overview, and gap analysis, for assessing untapped opportunities. But several-such as level playing field, benchmark, and blue-sky-have been a part of the English language for many years. What’s confusing people is the context that they are used in. For example, we associate blue-sky with the great outdoors, not with creative brainstorming or thinking.
Jargon is all right in its place. But what’s happening in today’s business world is that we’re getting bombarded with it from all directions and with greater frequency.
It’s clear from the survey, and from my personal experience, that people are confused by it and don’t understand it. The result is that interpersonal and corporate communications are breaking down at an alarmingly high rate and it’s having a negative impact on productivity and efficiency levels.
This is a good enough reason for sticking to plain simple English. Say what you mean in clear, concise terms. Keep it simple. Sometimes, less is best.
If we do this, we can change the business world one word at a time and make it a much better place to work in.