Are you getting lost in business jargon? Here’s how to find your way back

business jargon
Professor Petrina Coventry (FCPHR)


written on November 24, 2016

Why is it that the language used in business is often incomprehensible? Is business jargon used to conceal meaning and intent?

‘Paradigm shift’ is summed up by the Urban Dictionary like this: “Has no real meaning, but people like to pretend it does.” Cute expressions, clichés and trendy business jargon might be amusing, but watch out! They can cloud meaning, confuse employees and annoy consumers.

If we are going to develop clearer, more ethical communication in business, we need to avoid jargon.

Business leaders using jargon or industry speak can make it hard to decipher what is going on and audiences can start to wonder if the industry waffle is just covering up something they don’t want us to know. Jargon may be used innocently but bad communication can lead to sinister interpretations.

How often do we see broad-brush statements about a company’s corporate governance being ‘transparent’, that they operate ‘within the law’ and are ‘ethical’? Despite this, we continue to see failures in ethical standards from these same companies. The words and the music don’t match and, out there, is an increasingly sceptical audience watching.

Word and deed

Increasingly, companies are being assessed on their ethical position. Ethical investing surged by 24 per cent in 2014 according to the Responsible Investment Australia Benchmark Report.

The ethical or responsible investor demands honest and authentic leaders at the helm. And a test of leadership integrity, is how CEOs or leaders portray themselves through word and action.

One measure is whether the company storyline is composed of empty rhetoric and shallow generalisations, or based on facts clearly and bravely communicated.

Artful and vague language used by CEOs or politicians may seem clever but the protagonists can get caught up in a risky, careless and misrepresentative language if not well advised. Twenty three per cent of CEOs are fired for “denying reality”, sometimes seen as a symptom of doublespeak, avoidance of facts or elaborate business jargon.

Culturally, jargon can be tribal and reinforce belonging, but just as some might feel included by the tribal language, others can feel shut out.

A lot of jargon is borrowed from the military. Words and phrases such as campaign, rally the troops, follow the leader, and keep your powder dry, are designed for command and control environments. Their use does not endear themselves to idea creation or creativity.

Group-think, killing creativity or shutting down diversity of thought has been proven to erode competitive edge and impact productivity.

It’s also been proven that employees who discuss their decision making using ethical language are more likely to make ethical decisions. They are more likely to recount in terms of morals, honesty, integrity, values and good character.

Don’t avoid the truth by the use of flowery rhetorical phrases or ‘jargonese’.

Take the example of Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, who was applauded by many for his email addressing staff cuts. In it he wrote, “Emails like this are usually riddled with corporate speak, so I’m going to give it to you straight.” His email was seen as courageous for its honesty and clarity. If there is bad news to convey, people would rather hear it straight.

But one colleague at Twitter took up Dorsey’s statement and decided to show what a real cleanse of corporate speak would look lie:


We are moving forward with a restructuring of our workforce cutting our staff so we can put our company on a stronger path to grow spend the money better.

The team has been working around the clock to produce streamlined roadmap for simplify our plans for Twitter, Vine and Periscope and they are shaping up to be strong. The roadmap is focused on the experiences which will have the greatest impact doing stuff we hope people will like …

You get the idea.

Many people underestimate the power that language plays in establishing strong ethics. HR shouldn’t be one of them. HR is largely held accountable for establishing company culture and can set the tone and standard for clear, professional communication that avoids weasel words or business jargon.

By ‘opening the kimono’ around the area to ethical communication HR can become ‘thought leaders’ in this space.

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2 thoughts on “Are you getting lost in business jargon? Here’s how to find your way back

  1. Ah Weasel Words. Long live the Don Watson Fan Club.
    For years I have been frustrated by ‘strategic aligned communications, whilst moving forward’ and scream out for language that is plain, simple and truthful. So often I find these ‘weasel words’ hollow, resulting in passages full of empty meaning and on the majority of occasions they don’t actually say anything. Having worked in HR for 20 years, I see the contagion getting worse, with the rhetoric moving into all areas of work and play. Kill me now!!!
    Its sad that we live in a world where it is seen as ‘courageous’ to be honest, up front yet respectful to others and telling them what they want to hear, the truth. As you suggest, IT IS what people want to hear and they are appreciative of it and will respect you more. At the grass roots level (here I go doing it myself) where we live in a culturally diverse society with differing backgrounds and a society with varying levels of education I find the use of such language often, pompous, driven by hubris and at times plainly unfair.
    I vote to stop this strategic alignment of corporate objectives to ensure transparency and collaboration of the customer experience. Hats off to you Professor.

  2. Great article!
    Would love to add a commet but I ‘don’t have the bandwidth’ to ‘take it to scale’ and ‘unpack this idea’. ?

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