Speak to customers in words they understand.
Some of you might be a little puzzled by the headline
to this article. What does “spike” mean in this context? It’s derived from
journalism jargon in which editors commonly refer to spiking a story, i.e.,
killing it for whatever reason. It comes from days of old when editors and
writers used to work with typewriters and correction fluid. Editors actually
would have an upright spike on their desks on which they would impale
typewritten pages of articles they were finished with or chose not to use. This
prevented the copy (another journalistic term) from accidentally getting
mingled with “live” articles.
Folio, morgue, galley, pica, pixel, op-ed are some other terms from my trade
that most of you probably aren’t familiar with. I use some of those terms when
communicating with the people I work with in our publishing company, but they
don’t have much relevance to you folks or anyone else outside of the publishing
When it comes to jargon, nobody tops the folks who work with computer
technology. Check out this lead paragraph from a press release that crossed my
desk a while back:
Apriso Corp., a provider of adaptive software solutions for global
manufacturers, today announced Amcor Flexibles’ selection of Apriso FlexNet for
global deployment, complementing Amcor’s existing SAP Enterprise Resource
Planning (ERP) system. Implementation will initially span more than 20
locations to improve operations performance by providing global visibility to
the firm’s production environment and supply chain network. Beyond just a
Manufacturing Execution System (MES), Apriso FlexNet will enable widespread
unification of all Operations Execution Systems (OES), creating an adaptive
operations platform spanning multiple, distributed
No, I didn’t make that up. I have a master’s degree in English, but cannot for
the life of me figure out what the paragraph above is trying to
Actually, I bet the writer doesn’t either. I sense that the press release was
penned by an entry-level marketing communications person with little
understanding of this company’s products. So s/he relied on input from the
technology experts who may be geniuses when it comes to programming software,
but don’t have a clue how to communicate what they do to
Jargon arises in every field. It’s inevitable and even desirable. On the job, acronyms
and jargon are useful ways to communicate more efficiently than if you had to
spell out everything. However, everyone in business needs to be “bilingual.”
Not necessarily in the sense of knowing a foreign language, but in speaking a
different way to customers, prospects and others who are unfamiliar with the
details of your trade. Talk to them about rigs, auger piles and scours, and
you’ll likely get met with blank stares.
Learning this second language doesn’t always come easy. Tradespeople tend to
speak with peers far more than they do to outsiders, so over time, their jargon
begins to feel like their native language. And it may be very difficult to
explain the technical aspects of your work without resorting to
On the other hand, that’s a poor excuse. Think of it this way: Most of us
routinely speak in different languages to different audiences. Your family
dinner table conversations about work likely sound different than your
lunchtime chats with business colleagues. We explain things to children using
different words and concepts than we do when talking to adults. We tend to
speak in a more measured tone when addressing bosses or VIPs than when chatting
with peers. Males who retain a core of chivalry will mind their language in the
presence of ladies. It’s just a matter of applying the same principle when
dealing with trade outsiders.
It’s not just technical jargon that gets in the way. The business world is
filled with jargon and euphemisms that do more to muddle than clarify meanings.
So layoffs become “right-sizing,” and nouns get transformed into gooey verbs
like optimize, prioritize, synergize, etc.
Frequently, people in the business world use jargon to show off their
intelligence or inflate their importance, or at least think they’re doing so.
In a chemistry lab, it’s more likely to be the lower-level staffers showing off
their vocabulary in speaking of dihydrogen monoxide. The PhDs will simply say
they’d like a drink of water.
In certain circles, obscurity actually may be more important than communicating
clearly. The quarterly and annual reports of big corporations often get filled
with corporate gobbledygook as a way to obscure poor performance, for example.
And it’s a lot better to say, “My plate’s pretty full,” than to tell a customer
you’d rather eat bugs than take on the project at hand.
But that’s not the case when talking to clients, prospects or other persons of
influence whose favor you’d like to cultivate. The biggest problem with jargon
is simply that it may lead to misunderstanding and sometimes resentment. Most
people won’t tell you they don’t know what you’re talking about and ask for
clarification. Instead, they’ll nod their head, indicating agreement or
understanding. Then when something goes wrong, they’ll claim you never told
them about that. This is how arguments start, as well as expensive
Even if the situation doesn’t get out of hand, excessive use of jargon can lead
to mistrust and resentment. Mysterious language can make people feel the wool
is being pulled over their eyes or they are being talked down to. Seldom will
they make an issue of it aloud, but this is not a good path to
Put the shoe on the other foot. Think of how you’d feel visiting a doctor and
being told that over-expression of lipoprotein lipase has been implicated in
tissue-specific insulin resistance and consequent development of type-2
Wouldn’t you rather the doctor simply tell you to cut back on