Jargon. Are you tempted to use it or avoid at all cost? Love it or hate it, jargon can have a positive or negative impact on the effectiveness of your communications. It’s highly contextual and tribal as it usually derives from a particular industry or subculture.

I admit, I have a love-hate relationship with jargon. On the plus side, it can make communications more efficient and meaningful. In the modern and complex business world, jargon often provides helpful shorthand to those in a particular industry or who share context. But it’s a double-edged sword: Jargon can make you feel more aligned with your audience—or make your audience feel excluded.

Once jargon reaches critical mass, it’s usually considered a buzz-word or a cliché. That’s when it runs the risk of outliving its useful life. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines a buzz-word as “a fashionable piece of jargon.” But if it’s fashionable, it can’t all be bad, right?

The first 20 years of my career were spent in global business, in a highly matrixed environment with both commercial and federal contracts where jargon was necessary to survive. Rest assured, I’m well trained in military-related, cross-functional, and sports-inspired business jargon. When I transitioned from big business to small business, I learned jargon is in the eye (or ear) of the beholder and should be used selectively. With lots of jargon in my personal repertoire, I’m motivated to understand how people respond to certain words or phrases and why.

I polled my LMD colleagues and discovered some common reactions to frequently used jargon:

  1. Overused words or phrases become annoying. For example, “transparency” is used too frequently and its meaning has diminished.
  2. Words used out of context become confusing. A recent business school graduate tells me the word leverage falls into this category.
  3. Some word usage seems like a ruse to make the speaker sound smarter. For example, ideate (which I happen to love) is a fancy way to say generate ideas. Do I sound smarter?
  4. Most jargon is usually not necessary and just adds words where you don’t need them. Case in point: “It is what it is” is just stating the obvious.Verbing nouns is wrong. Our Editor-in-Chief at LMD reminds us to stop verbing nouns—we don’t need to “actionize” or “solution” anything. (I disagree—I need to use solution as a verb!)

Here’s my personal list of words/phrases to hate and love:

  • Synergy is my most hated word because it’s misused and misunderstood. In the corporate world, synergy is code for reduction in force so it is easy to understand my personal dislike for the term. However, some managers use synergy in a positive way, as they are looking for opportunities to make improvements—and some managers have become synergy zealots. The Harvard Business Review’s coined this condition the “synergy bias” to describe CEOs who desperately seek synergy to the point they become obsessed and make unwise decisions and investments.
  • Ecosystem is my favorite word as it helps leaders understand the importance of systems thinking, which is important when designing strategic plans, defining business processes, or creating cohesive work cultures.
  • One throat to choke is at the top of my list to loathe. I understand the need to communicate the idea of accountability; however, this is such an unpleasant visual. If I hear a client use this phrase, I will quickly suggest they replace it with one belly button to push.  
  • The phrase I find most useful is the juice is not worth the squeeze. I can’t live without this concept—it really helps leaders and organizations reframe their thinking on priorities and conserve their energy for high-value projects. This phrase is a helpful reminder that just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. Some things are just not worth your time and effort.

Now, let’s get the ball rolling with a poll. Don’t hold back. We really want you to fire on all cylinders and give us 110%. Once we synthesize all the data then we will run it up the flag pole. We will provide a summary of the low-hanging fruit (words and phrases you should avoid). So lean-in, dig deep, and take this window of opportunity. The poll should only take a few minutes of your time. I hope you have the bandwidth to participate

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As President of LMD, Holly builds partnerships, leads business development pursuits, and ensures LMD employees and clients have rewarding experiences. Holly brings over three decades of federal, global, and corporate...Read more