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Making the case for jargon, acronyms and clear language
by Robert Hillard

All over the web, authors are ranting about the misuse of the English language in business.  It’s an easy article to write, picking out examples of jargon and the general torturing of sentences in the name of explaining apparently simple concepts while making the writer seem more impressive.

Some great examples from business can be found in this Forbes article: The Most Annoying, Pretentious and Useless Business Jargon.  Examples that I like (or hate) include terms like “swim lanes”, “best practice” and “core competence”.

There are good reasons for using jargon

Rather than take cheap shots, let’s start by asking why people use jargon in the first place.  There are often good reasons for using most of the terms, even the ones that we all hate.  Every discipline has its own special language, whether it is science, architecture, law or business across every industry.  This use of language isn’t restricted to technical terminology, it also includes the way that concepts are expressed which can seem obscure or even absurd to an outsider.

While often justified, the use of jargon acts as a tool to exclude these outsiders from participating in the conversation.  This is a problem because there is good evidence that some of the most exciting solutions to problems are multi-disciplinary.

Experts seldom realise that they might be missing out on a breakthrough which comes from another field.  Business, for instance, is borrowing from ideas in physics (such as thermodynamics) in understanding the dynamics of markets as well as biology to understand how organisations evolve.

Just as fields of science, medicine and law have their own language, so does every aspect of business such as human resources, finance, sales et cetera.  Even in general business, diversity of thought comes up with a better answer almost every time.  Getting to those ideas is only possible if the discussion is intelligible to all.

Jargon to avoid debate

While many discussions use jargon and acronyms as a legitimate shortcut, some use of jargon reflects a lack of understanding by the participants or even an attempt to avoid debate in the first place.  Take the example of “metadata”, a term which has appeared in many countries as governments struggle with appropriate security, privacy and retention regimes.

A plain English approach would be to describe the definition of metadata in full in every discussion rather take the shortcut of using the term on its own.  The reality is that even landing on a definition can lead to an uncomfortable debate, but definitely one worth having as the Australian Attorney General learned to his determent in this interview where the purpose of a very important debate was lost in a confusing discussion on what metadata actually is.

The Attorney General isn’t on his own, many executives have been challenged in private and public forums to explain the detail behind terms they’ve commonly used only to come unstuck.

Sometimes people use jargon, like metadata, swim lanes and best practice because they are avoiding admitting they don’t know the detail.  Other times, they are legitimately using the terms to avoid having to repeat whole paragraphs of explanation.  Of course, this is where acronyms come into their own.

Balancing the needs of the reader and author

Given that it takes at least five times as long to write something as it does to read it (and a factor of ten is more realistic for anything complex) the authors of documents and emails can be forgiven for taking a shortcut or two.

The problem is when they forget that every communication is an exchange of information and while information has value, the value is not necessarily the same for both the writer and reader.

For example, there is little that is more annoying that receiving an email which requires extensive research to work out what the TLAs contained within it actually stand for.  Of course, a TLA is a “three letter acronym” (the most popular length of acronym with examples including everything from “BTW” for “by the way” through to LGD for “loss given default”).

Our propensity for short messages has only increased due to our rapid adoption of texts, instant messaging and Twitter.  I’ve written before about the role of email in business (see Reclaim email as a business tool).  Clarity of meaning is fundamental to all communication regardless of the medium.

Given that it does take so much longer to write than to read, it makes sense for the writer to take short-cuts.  However, if the information is of the same value to both the writer and reader, then the shortcut needs to offer a tenfold benefit to the writer to make-up for the additional cost in time to the reader who has to decode what the shortcut means.

This equation gets worse if there are multiple readers, if the benefit is greater to the writer than the reader or when the writer has the advantage of context (that is, they are already thinking about the topic so the jargon and acronyms are already on their mind).

In short, there is seldom a benefit to using jargon or acronyms in an email without taking a moment to either spell them out or provide a link to definitions that are easily accessed.

Is this the best you can do?

Perhaps the need to make sure that a reader’s time is spent wisely is best summed up in this anecdote told by Ambassador Winston Lord about Henry Kissinger (former US Secretary of State).

After giving Henry Kissinger a report that Ambassador Winston Lord had worked diligently on, Kissinger famously asked him if this “Is this the best you can do?” This question was repeated on each draft until Lord reached the end of his tolerance, saying “Damn it, yes, it’s the best I can do.”  To which Kissinger replied: “Fine, then I guess I’ll read it this time.” (sourced from Walter Isaacson, “Kissinger: A Biography”, Simon & Schuster 1992).

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