I’ve often asked myself why so many of us in the corporate world feel compelled to talk about getting our ducks in a row, building straw dogs, or making sure we’re all singing from the same song sheet for our elevator speeches. How did this start? Who is responsible for the blatant proliferation of jargon throughout the corporate world to the point where it is acceptable in an interview to refer to “including people” as baking them in? I want the single throat to choke (whoops, I just used jargon) from an accountability standpoint so I can ask them a simple question:
“Why? Why Did You Do This to Us?!”
When I finished school, my first corporate job was as a consultant working for one of the big global consulting firms. There, I was inundated with a slew of corporate expressions. I was certain that we consultants were to blame for this – especially given the strange looks we often got from clients when we said weird things like, “This new process could be met with tissue rejection.”
But the story behind where this and other expressions actually came from runs much deeper than a group of consultants coining terms to make themselves sound smart. At The Atlantic, Emma Green traces the history of office talk as far back as the Industrial Revolution. She shows us that corporate jargon emerges according to what is important to the corporate world at the time of its creation. For example, the expression low-hanging fruit emerged during General Electric’s “Workout” days, made famous under Jack Welch, when organizations were looking for ways to quickly and easily identify problems and solutions. Similarly, pinging and double-clicking down emerged during the technology-driven Dot-com Revolution more recently.
So it turns out that the partner in my group who felt compelled to talk about paradigm shifts was just a corporate-jargon-speaking product of his time (the term was coined in the 1960s by philosopher Thomas Kuhn). Being labeled as such instead of as a blatant abuser of corporate buzzwords no one understands would certainly feel better during therapy.
These days, however, authenticity and relatability are more important than ever. We want people to speak to us in plain English – not only in the corporate world, but in pretty much every facet of life. In politics, for example, voters are begging elected officials to stop the politician-speak and just talk to us like normal people.
Join the Conversation: What Bit of Corporate Jargon Annoys You the Most?
How Do We Stop the Madness?
Aside from shock therapy – which really isn’t socially acceptable any more – one of the easiest things we can do is simply ask ourselves if how we are saying something would resonate as authentic and relatable to our audience. Does asking someone to put a straw dog together seem authentic and relatable? Or should we simply say, “Let’s put an outline together”? Everyone gets that.
From there, we can challenge ourselves to use the same language at work as we would use with our family and friends. I would never say to my mother – a retired elementary school teacher who worked with children who had learning disabilities – that we really needed to create mindshare on how to turn the home office into the new baby’s room. I’d simply say that we should share some good ideas and pick the best.
It will take work, though. Corporate jargon has become habit for almost all of us. Because it is used so widely, it has rubbed off on everyone. Old habits are hard to break, and new habits take time to form and firmly establish themselves.
Make the elimination of corporate jargon a group challenge for you teams. If you are a manager, bring your employees into the conversation and ask them to regulate each other – and maybe more importantly, regulate you. Start by focusing on ways to eliminate the top 3-5 corporate expressions used in your office.
As the non-corporate expression goes, “It takes a village.”
James Sudakow is principal of CH Consulting, Inc., and author of Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit … and Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World. How well do you know corporate jargon? Take the quiz here.