“Kate, come on in for a minute. I have some concerns about the newsletter.”
It was several years ago, and I had made the mistake of volunteering to write and edit a monthly bulletin for the company I was working for, in hopes of beefing up my resume. The “side project” had started to feel like a full-time job, and the impromptu meetings with my manager had become a daily occurrence. They had also become an exercise in patience, as her ‘concerns’ were downright confusing.
“What can I help you with, Erin?” I asked, bracing myself.
“It’s the verbiage. I’m not sure it aligns with our messaging.”
And so, as always, I wore my best “sure, I understand what you’re saying” face as she offered an explanation that was riddled with corporate clichés — terms like “synergy” that seemed out of place when discussing the content of an internal newsletter.
At least, I think that’s what we were discussing. The truth is I didn’t understand her, because I couldn’t get past the use of “verbiage.”
The term actually refers to “speech or writing that uses too many words or excessively technical expressions.” I’m pretty sure she meant to say “wording.” But, as has become commonplace in the business world, rather than using simple terms, we’ve taken the opposite route.
When I hear “verbiage,” I think of cabbage, or garbage. Neither of which conjures up a great image. Now, don’t get me wrong — I understand that the English language is constantly evolving to reflect the progress we’ve made as a society. But the wave of clichés that have littered the workplace isn’t an evolution; it’s a revolt, and we need to crush it.
Here are some examples of the worst offenses, as identified in a recent Ladders article:
- “Let’s parking lot this” (A complicated way of saying, ‘wait’)
- “It’s time to eat a reality sandwich.” (Perhaps with cabbage?)
- “Make hay” (This term refers to being productive in a small amount of time, which you may not know if you haven’t ever farmed for a living.)
- “Idea shower” (A fancy way of saying ‘brainstorm’)
- “Recontextualize” (I’m not sure I want to tackle this one.)
We need to stop the madness, and start saying what we mean. And if you think I’m alone in this belief (or that I sound like a raving lunatic), you’re wrong. At least, about the latter. In a recent American Express business survey, 88 percent of respondents said they use office jargon without understanding it. What this tells me is that when a manager engages in corporate speak, they’re getting a whole lot of people making the face I described above.
What it also tells me is that not only can this ‘babblespeak’ hinder productivity, it can also add “unnecessary distance between coworkers.” On the other hand, by avoiding jargon, employers can build trust among their team and appear much more approachable.
If you aren’t sold yet, consider this. Of those who use corporate-speak, 40 percent said they do it out of habit, and 24 percent said they believe it makes them sound intelligent.
I’m here to dispel that myth. Years ago, I had a coworker named James who prefaced the terms he constantly used and abused (“Let’s blue-sky this” was a favorite) with, “in business school, we say…” which did nothing to lessen the condescending effect of his “verbage.”
More than once, I resisted the temptation to say, “In journalism school, we used real words.”
Perhaps I’m overly passionate about this, but to me, words are important. (Just ask my husband, who often calls me the grammar police.) I firmly believe that if you want to engage in real conversations, there’s no need for terms that are exclusionary, confusing, or just plain ridiculous.
So while I’m on a roll, here are a few more suggestions on how we can break down the jargon barriers and communication more effectively:
- Don’t talk in movie quotes. Although it’s certainly acceptable (and even funny) to drop a famous line here or there, when you constantly use snippets from movies like Old School and The Hangover, as one of my coworkers did, you alienate those who don’t enjoy crass humor.
- Go easy on the sports clichés. Most of us know what a huddle is, but for those who aren’t big sports fans, terms like “par for the course” and “full-court press” simply don’t translate. Interestingly, this topic came up at last year’s CHIME Diversity reception, and it made me think twice about how often I rely on sports analogies.
- Tame the tech talk. In an interview earlier this year, Liz Johnson provided some great advice on the need to avoid “geek speak” and instead find better ways to communicate. The same goes for sales-speak, and medical terminology.
- Kill the clichés that are downright inappropriate. Ever heard the terms “throw out the baby with the bathwater” or “open the kimono?” I have, and I don’t want to ever again.
Of course, there are going to be times when we need to ‘think outside the box,’ ‘circle back’ and search for a ‘win-win,’ but let’s try to do it without constantly going to the cliché bullpen (see what I did there?).
Please, for the love of words.