January 4, 2016 kirstycooke

When is jargon jargon?

The 2015 Golden Flannel Award winners were announced today and the results are, as expected, hilarious. (Advice: follow the author, Lucy Kellaway from the FT, and do some giggling.)

For the uninitiated, these awards celebrate (well, highlight) the very worst abominations in business-speak, buzzword-coinage and jargon use. Honours include the Chief Obfuscation Champion, the Mixed Metaphor Award, and the Communications Cup, awarded for the most hideous new phrase wheeled out for ‘meeting’ (this year, ‘front-face’ narrowly lost out to ‘bilateral telephonic meeting’).

There’s also the Nerb prize (for making a verb from a noun, creating ‘to town hall’ and ‘to potentiate’, among others) and the newly added ‘Sick Bucket Gong’, which went to the Harvard Business Review (sorry, I love you HBR) this year for ‘executive brownout’. Ew.

But right after chuckling at Lucy’s (brilliant) article and making a coffee, I returned to my own email inbox and it was everywhere. Every subject line and newsletter headline read like awful, silly-award-winning ‘guff’ – the laughing stock of clever Financial Times journalists. I am a marketer. These are my people. I am part of the problem!

I am a words person (many people in marketing, quite apparently, are not). I may accidentally ‘leverage’ something or ask for ‘actions’ when I mean ‘things to do’, but I try not to verb my English too much. My eager colleagues across the industry, sadly, drop in many a ‘tangible conversation’ or equally offensive term, in an effort to sound, I suppose, knowledgeable and/or important.

The thing is, it doesn’t always matter. I almost always know what these people mean, and it would take me a minute to think of a reasonable alternative. While writers (including me) snort with derision at ‘caucus’ in place of ‘meeting’, mediators reliably inform me that this is a specific *kind* of meeting, with its own definition, thank you very much. The person who said ‘executive brownout’ probably thought it was spot-on, and quite funny, and maybe his audience totally got it. The author of a new mission statement (a breeding ground for drivel, you tend to find) isn’t generally writing it for my delectation. It’s for their employees and a few shareholders. Their staff (or family, or the recipient of that one email) may easily wrap their heads around ‘swim lanes of opportunity’. It wasn’t aimed at me.

As well as anyone, I know that words have meaning. The right word at the right time is nigh-on priceless. A word that is often crap can sometimes be golden. Businesses and industries have their own terms. OK.

The problem? This example nails it. For me, very few words are completely heinous on their own. The issue, that look of disgust and disbelief, arises when you use too many vague, misappropriated or simply ridiculous words in a row. When the sentence is so dense with jargon that nobody can understand what you’re talking about, even the people you are actually talking to. At that point, you must think of a better way to language it.