Saturday 22 September 2018

Want to put a 'hard stop' to 'two-pizza meetings'? Why jargon is bad for business

(Stock picture)
(Stock picture)

Ciaran Byrne

I was at a meeting with a prospective client some months ago and just as proceedings kicked off, the CEO made an announcement. He declared to the assembled gathering that he was going to have to “execute a hard stop at 1pm”.

The looks around the room told their own story — uncomprehending faces among those who did not work for the company, uncomfortable glances from his employees. I think someone may have even sniggered. Hard stop. Seriously?

What he meant was that he would have to leave the meeting at 1pm. But he felt unable to simply say that. He chose to use jargon.

The actual phrase, for the uninitiated, is used in policing circles when officers surprise a suspect by, you know, ramming a car off the road or maybe pouncing on him or her in the street.

That’s a hard stop; using the element of surprise to nail the bad guy. The act of politely excusing yourself from a meeting is not a hard stop.

Why then is the term bandied about in business circles? It’s easy to call this meaningless jargon but everything has a meaning. The problem here is the act of applying the wrong meaning.

Ireland’s business and corporate environment, from the largest brands, down through SMEs and sole traders, is choked with jargon. This toxic verbal and written algae kills clear communication and good content, murders press releases and destroys any chance of telling a good story.

Jargon is the language of misunderstanding and confusion, a lexicon of bad imagery that doesn’t connect with real people for good reason: it’s complete verbal diarrhoea.

The best content, be it an internal memo or a company story, is always jargon-free. That’s what makes it readable and relatable.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon. The thing is that it just won’t go away.

Can you imagine sitting in a cafe or pub and telling a friend or family member you have to “execute a hard stop” after the encounter? How about suggesting a “two-pizza meeting”? This means having a quick team meeting of eight or fewer people, loosely based on the metric of two slices per person.

Maybe “reaching out” is your thing.

Here’s a few business emails I have received in the last few months.

“Hi Ciaran,

I see you were researching one of our products. Thanks for your inquiry, I’m reaching out to see if you’d like to talk…”

“Hi Ciaran

I tried reaching out to you earlier last week, but couldn’t make contact…”

“Hello Ciaran, I’m reaching out to you about your laptop repair…”

So why does a business choose to speak to people this way? Probably it believes it sounds somehow better, smarter, more impressive. “Reaching out” and yakking about “hard stops” is cool and modern

It isn’t.

One of my favourite annual highlights in business journalism is Lucy Kellaway’s Jargon awards in the Financial Times, when she dishes out end-of year-prizes for guff. Last year she wrote: “People promoting driverless cars, the most hyped industry segment of the moment, became world leaders in verbiage.”

Elon Musk claimed to be “laser-focused on achieving full self-driving capability on one integrated platform with an order of magnitude greater safety than the average manually driven car” (ie, Tesla cars must not crash). Better still was Iain Roberts, global managing director of the design company Ideo, who asked a question to which I hope never to hear the answer: “How to activate insights around latent mobility or multimodal needs?” And that’s the real reason a business should ditch the jargon; not only does it make you sound like a walking cliché, jargon actively hampers your business. People just don’t know what you are on about.

There are five good reasons why jargon is so very bad for your business:

• Jargon is words and phrases that are guaranteed to be misunderstood by lots of people;

• It forces customers and staff to decipher what you are saying and look for meaning — nobody has the time;

• In talking over people’s heads, you’re also being incredibly annoying;

• Outside of the conference or meeting room, people don’t speak like this — ever;

• People might consider you something of a spoofer — and they’d be right.

So stop reaching out, dump the hard stops, avoid two-pizza meetings and get real. In fixing your language, you can fix the story and spread the word. Keep it simple.

 

Ciaran Byrne is managing editor of StoryLab, a content and PR agency whose clients include the National Lottery, UCD and Guinness Storehouse

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