In 2006, FastCompany.com published a piece called “How to Stay Awake in Boring Meetings,” and it’s still relevant today—perhaps more than ever. The piece gives office workers instructions on how to whip up a DIY bingo board with the tiles marked in common office jargon: bottom line, best practice, out of the loop, to tell you the truth, results-driven, game plan, and more. Players mark tiles as buzzwords come up. The final instruction: “When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally stand up and shout ‘bulls–t!’”
The bingo card mocks words we all know. Words we use as marketers, both in the office with our colleagues, and with our customers. They’re words we claim to dislike. But they’re words that, nevertheless, we continue to use.
Why we’re drawn to lingo
Lingo creates exclusivity
Using buzzwords creates a sort of elitism. If you’re not sure what a person is saying to you, you’re not in the know, and they are. This creates a power dynamic, with you on the not-powerful end. So you learn the lingo and do it, too. We all just want to fit in, be savvy, and appear as experienced as the next guy.
Jargon summons a sense of importance
“We need their ‘buy-in’ before we can move forward with the campaign,” essentially means we need someone’s permission or approval before we can do the thing we want to do. Wrapping that uncertainty—will we get what we need?—in important-sounding phraseology makes it seem somehow more crucial, but actually serves to muddle your real interest in the outcome.
Why corporate-speak is alienating and damaging
Changing the way we speak can change the way we think
It’s a long-held psychological belief that if we change the way we think, we can change the way we act. In a more recent development, it’s believed that changing how we speak can influence our very thoughts.
In a Stanford paper on “How Language Shapes Thought,” author Lera Boroditsky, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Science at UCSD and Editor-in-Chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, says, “the way we think influences the way we speak, but the influence also goes the other way. The past decade has seen a host of ingenious demonstrations establishing that language indeed plays a causal role in shaping cognition. Studies have shown that changing how people talk changes how they think.”
In short, if we continue to use terms like “optimize” every time we speak in a broad way about making something better, we could be training our brain to forget that what we essentially want is to improve upon something in order to achieve a specific result. “Optimize” can now mean basically anything in the world of digital marketing, a world where generalities rarely add credibility to a marketer’s vision. Choosing a different word or phrase, at least some of the time, requires us to get specific: what needs to be better, to what degree, and why.
It creates interpersonal distance
Pretentious or inflated speech serves to separate us, both from each other and from our customers. If we want our colleagues to have a stronger understanding of the marketing department’s needs and challenges, as well as a deeper understanding of our customers’ behaviors, we can begin by fostering a better understanding of one another. This means breaking down our language to say what we mean as clearly, plainly, and specifically as possible; both with our colleagues and our customers.
We’re more believable when we speak in plain terms
A 2011 NYU study found that, “statements of the very same content were judged as more probably true when they were written in concrete language than when they were written in abstract language.”
Whether speaking to a boss, a subordinate, or a customer, we’re perceived to be more credible when we speak plainly.
A marketer’s lingo translation kit
Example: Can’t take that on right now, the team doesn’t have the bandwidth.
What you really mean to say: The team doesn’t currently have the time/resources to take that on right now.
The recipient will appreciate the specificity and honesty of your response. “Our team is already stretched thin this quarter,” feels like a real answer, and less of a brush-off. Especially in cases where you’re using “bandwidth” synonymously with “time,” just say you haven’t got the time. Why veil the point?
Managers can sometimes use “bandwidth,” when they really mean they don’t have the budget, resources, or desire to take something on. It may be okay to ask for further clarification, if you’re not sure what it means.
Touch base / Circle back
Example: Get moving on that, and we’ll touch base next week.
What you really mean: You’re not alone! I recognize your efforts, and I’ll be interested to see what kind of progress you make, because I’m an active participant, working alongside you.
Your actual response doesn’t necessarily need to be so verbose, or so touchy-feely, but it can warm up a few degrees to something that conveys your real interest. Try for the simple: “I’ll put a meeting on the calendar so we can talk about the progress.” These words promise real action, as well.
Example: That issue doesn’t speak to our core competencies as an organization.
What you really mean: … it doesn’t refer to the thing we do best.
Why do we refer to core competencies as if our business has a dichotomy of capabilities? No one ever mentions those tangential competencies implied when we say “core competency.”
When we discuss core competencies, we’re talking about the things that make our business special.
Lots of moving parts
Example: We’re a little behind schedule. This project has lots of moving parts.
What you really mean: I don’t have the time/information/support I need.
Any functional business or complicated project will have lots of moving parts. If you find yourself reaching for this phrase, it’s likely because you find yourself in a defensive position, needing to explain an obstacle, holdup, or challenge of some type. Why not get right down to it, and be transparent about whatever barrier is on your mind?
Example: We’re not seeing the kind of engagement we were hoping for.
What you really mean: The number of viewers/downloaders/consumers/etc. isn’t as high as we hoped it would be.
Engagement on its own is not a useless word. It’s an umbrella term that can mean many things, which is sometimes useful, and sometimes meaningless in it’s lack of specificity. When it makes sense, try to arrive unambiguously at the type of engagement that is important to you in the moment. Are you concerned with reading, viewing, listening, watching, buying, downloading, commenting?
Even more importantly, engagement is typically the word we use when we’re talking about what we hope our users will do with our product, but real “engagement” is a two-way street. The word’s synonyms are “meeting” and “commitment.” To be successful, it requires outreach on both sides of the marketer/customer relationship.
Example: After reaching that critical milestone, we’re ready to focus our core efforts on user acquisition.
What you really mean: We’re ready to focus our efforts on bringing the service/product we believe in to the people for whom it was built—as many of them as possible.
The above is a mouthful. The reality is, “user acquisition” is a tidy little phrase that sums it up. There’s no getting around the term one hundred percent of the time. However, the term is a bit of a blunt object. It lacks nuance. Defaulting to “user acquisition” in all instances puts distance between the marketer and their noble quest: to connect real people who have a real problem to a service or product.
The term “users” can separate us from the actual human people out there, on the other end of their devices. The term “acquire,” although specific and to the point, essentially means to get, gather, and collect. They’re a hoarder’s favorite verbs. Everyone’s biggest challenge is getting (and keeping) users. That’s the object of the game. Successful marketers build real relationships with real people; a process that’s a far cry from the very sterile-sounding operation of “acquiring” users.
How to fix it and speak like a human
Be original & be yourself
If it’s jargon, it’s probably over-used. Say what you really mean to say, in your own words. Chances are, you’ll stand out when your choice of words is unique, and uniquely you.
Use the simplest language possible
There’s a difference between speaking simply and dumbing it down. Don’t be afraid to skew plainspoken and uncomplicated.
KIPS: Keep it people, stupid
Communication coach Karen Friedman, author of Shut Up and Say Something: Business Communication Strategies to Overcome Challenges and Influence Listeners, recommends adjusting the common acronym KISS (keep it simple, stupid) to KIPS: keep it people, stupid.
She says, “When you are fully engaged, you engage others.” If you’re proud of your work and invested in the outcome, allow those things to show.
Speak like you’re talking to a friend
A common piece of digital communications advice is, “explain it as if you’re explaining it to your mom.”
This recommendation is generally employed in cases of communicating with people outside of your field, but we recommend that you try it in the office, too, to whatever degree makes sense for your work environment. Of course, we can’t always speak to one another as if we’re speaking to our mothers. The chatter that goes on among insiders allows for some slang and specialized language among those who understand it. That said, of speaking with people in your own industry, Friedman says, “Even if you’re talking to peers who do understand, it’s still up to you to make sense of the information and help people understand what it means to them.”
From a chapter in her book called “Talk to Your Grandmother,” Friedman says, “Wouldn’t it be great if every time we spoke at a meeting or met with superiors…we just spoke without analyzing or agonizing over our choice of words and instead just said what we had to say? When did we forget how to do that?”
We should know our audience, speak naturally, and yes, allow ourselves to speak the language of our industry, as long as we do so thoughtfully, and not out of insecurity or linguistic laziness.
Anne Curzan is a self-professed collector of slang words, and Professor of English at the University of Michigan who studies how the English language works and how it has changed over time. She says, “The English language is rich, vibrant and filled with the creativity of the people who speak it.” So be among the creative. Choose your language, don’t let it choose you.