My book, Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, is shipping from Amazon!

Buy it there now. Or buy the book in local book stores starting on May 25.

Here is tip #26 from the book:

Leverage Your Core Competencies by Off-Loading Jargon

Don’t use jargon. I know you’ve heard this rule before, but maybe no one has ever told you the real reason for the rule. You lose your authenticity when you reach for cliched phrases, and your choice of jargon reveals your weakness. Today business writing is “mired in cliche. It’s very stiff, striving to impress. It’s not honest: Here’s who I am,” says Tim Schellhardt, former bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal and now a public relations executive.

Phrases like “leverage your core competencies” spread through corporate life because the pressure to conform at work can be intense. Once you hear other people using the jargon, it’s easy to use it yourself. The result is an environment in which no voice stands out as authentic, according to the authors of, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots: A Bullfighter’s Guide.

There’s also jargon that goes across most industries. The phrases you hear whether you’re an accountant in consumer products or a programmer in health care. Most people understand this jargon, but using it makes you look bad because most cross-industry jargon is a euphemism for being desperate or incompetent or calling someone else desperate or incompetent. Here are some examples:

“Let’s think out of the box.” Really means, “Can you creatively anemic people please come up with something?” People who really do think out of the box do it whether they are told to or not. That’s how they think. If you feel like you need to tell someone to think out of the box, then it’s probably hopeless. The person who says, “Let’s think out of the box” is usually desperate for a new idea and surrounded by people who are not known for generating ideas. So the phrase is actually an announcement that says, “I’m in trouble.”

“I need someone who can hit the ground running.” Really means, “I am screwed.” Because no one can hit the ground running. You need to at least assess what race you’re in and who else is running. Everyone has a race strategy when they are in the blocks. You need a little time to get one. In the case of a new hire this means taking some time to assess company politics. If your employer needs you to hit the ground running then you’ve already missed your window to achieve success.

Let’s hit a home run: “I’m desperate to look good. Even though the odds of a home run are slim, I’m banking on one because it’s the only thing that’ll save me.” Something for all your sports fans to remember: If you have a bunch of solid hitters you don’t need a bunch of home runs.

You and I are not on the same page. “Get on my page. Your page is misguided.” No one ever says, “We’re not on the same page, so let me work really hard to understand your point of view. If you want to understand someone else, you say, “Can you tell me more about how you’re thinking.”

I’m calling to touch base. “I want something from you but I can’t say it up front.” Or “I am worried that you are lost and I’m sniffing around for signs to confirm my hunch.” Or “I’m calling because you micromanage me.”

My plate is full: “Help I’m drowning,” or “I would kill myself before I’d work on your project.”

Let’s close the loop. “Let me make sure I’m not going to get into trouble for this one.”

Let’s touch base next week: “I don’t want to talk to you now,” or “You are on a short leash and you need to report back to me.”

Keep this on your radar. “This will come back to bite you… or me.”

I sent this list to Peter Degen-Portnoy, inventor and president of Innovatium, and he pointed out one I missed: We’re not communicating well means “I don’t like you.”

I have never met Peter in person. But he sends me smart and soul-searching emails that reveal an authenticity that makes me feel like we’re friends. He never uses jargon, at least with me. So I like him.

Those of you who strive to be authentic every day of your life will not be derailed by jargon. To people who are connected to their work and their co-workers, jargon will not feel appropriate so you’ll rarely use it. Use jargon as a sign that you are disconnected to whatever is going on that is related to the jargon. If you treat the disconnectedness, and reestablish authenticity, the jargon will go away.

Buy the book now!

23 replies
  1. Jaerid
    Jaerid says:

    I absolutely love this post.

    You forgot the word "synergy" or "synergize" which gets used way too much. Another one is "dovetail" as in "let's dovetail the two ideas together". To me these words mean "my idea is crappy but I like yours and want in on the credit for it"

  2. Caitlin
    Caitlin says:

    Great post – you are so spot on. I hate business talk. The buzz phrase of 2006 seemed to be: “we’re going for the low hanging fruit” (translates as “we’re unimaginative and lazy”). Now it’s “we’re putting digital at the heart of everything we do” (translates as “we’ve just realised that digital is important and we’re panicking because we don’t have a proper digital strategy yet but we’re going to talk about it to make it seem like we’re doing something”).

    * * * * * *
    Ha! These two are very funny. Plus, that you write from Australia means that, comforting or not, bad jargon knows no boundaries :)

    Penelope

  3. Richard
    Richard says:

    Two that I can’t stand are “Level-set” – We are having meeting to level-set everyone on the project.

    and “Ping” – used by insecure middle mgt and subordinates to ensure they are not left out of anyting important, example, a voicemail to your boss:”Hey boss sorry I missed you, I’ll ping you on email or IM”

  4. Ben Casnocha
    Ben Casnocha says:

    While I hate jargon as much as the next guy, I almost always disagree that these kinds of phrases have no meaning.

    To wit I disagree with many of your translations. “Let’s touch base” can easily mean “Let’s catch up and see how things are going”. “Plate is full” can easily mean “I’m really busy”. “Let’s get on the same page” can be a fine and gentle way of saying that consistent expectations is key.

  5. David
    David says:

    In my last position as an Area Account Manager, "We're reaching for the low hanging fruit" translated as “You’re going to perform the work of two people, while protecting your assigned territory from your colleagues.”

  6. MS
    MS says:

    SME (Subject Matter Expert) – Someone who has thorough and authoritative unfounded opinions on a topic.

    Managing Expectations – Pre-emptively letting someone down before you actually screw something up.

    Post-Mortem – Process of identifying and documenting the mistakes of a recently completed project to make sure they are accurately repeated in future projects.

  7. Colin Kingsbury
    Colin Kingsbury says:

    People can and often do hide behind jargon, but I think you’ve over-salted the broth a bit here. C.S. Lewis (IIRC) said something about not confusing manners with morals, and I think a rule of that sort applies in this case. Creative thinking ability is important, but it often doesn’t exhibit itself through creative writing or speaking ability, especially in an off-the-cuff setting.

    The proper line is drawn I think when meaning is intentionally obscured. “Think outside the box” does have a self-parodying element to it, but for those of us whose business is something other than creative writing or speaking, it’s probably not worth worrying about.

    Jargon can be used to obscure, but most of the time I see it used, to echo Ben’s comment above, as a way of avoiding conflict, which is rarely productive. A lot of the annoyance that people feel at these uses of jargon is due, I think, to the sense of injustice that people feel when they think the evildoers are getting off scot-free. Some people want drama and excitement, assuming of course that they get to play a good part. Mature managers know that good business is often dull business.

  8. ex-programmer
    ex-programmer says:

    I think there is jargon, and then there is jargon. I was a non-technical person who fell into technology during web 1.0. And when I tried to use plain English when in meetings or conversations with programmers, the result was an opinion that I wasn’t authoritative, which impacted my ability to manage projects. Someone could say the exact same thing that I did, but use programmer jargon, and everyoone would ‘ah HA’ as though a great truth had been revealed.

    So I learned to start using the phrases they used amongst themselves, and my mindshare went up among the people I had to work with.

    I think there is a difference between jargon and cliches. I think you are talking about cliches.

  9. Chris Angelli
    Chris Angelli says:

    I agree w/ex-programmer. (Possibly because I am an ex-programmer?!?)

    Jargon: a characteristic language of a particular group

    Cliche: overused expression, as in: A good business writer tries to avoid using a cliche.

    Jargon helps two people with a shared frame of reference communicate more efficiently. Cliche is when an outsider co-opts the jargon. Eg: “ping” was perfectly good jargon the frist few times a sysadmin used it with another sysadmin. It became cliche when their manager started using it.

    The cliche that’s fingernails on a blackboard for me these days: Web 2.0

    * * ** * * *
    Chris, Thanks for the insight. I think it’s probably true that jargon serves a purpose in some cases. It’s just that those cases are such a small percentage.

    Irony: I would have never thought of Web 2.0 as jargon, and I use it all the time. But I see your point.

    –Penelope

  10. Pirate Jo
    Pirate Jo says:

    I hate the word “deliverable” with a passion and don’t even know why. I don’t use corporatespeak because I think it makes people sound like dorks. I wouldn’t speak that way at a party among friends and I won’t use that kind of language at work, either. Maybe hearing that kind of terminology at work, when you NEVER hear any reasonably cool person using it in real life, drives home the point that the place where you work bears no resemblance to real life, which is only depressing.

  11. Caroline Jack
    Caroline Jack says:

    Great post, Penelope.

    Jargon’s flaw is its vagueness. A phrase may not mean the same thing to different people, resulting in misunderstandings. And a speaker using jargon isn’t letting you know whether *they* know what they’re talking about.

  12. Dave
    Dave says:

    I agree with the distinctions here between jargon and cliches. The reason many people bristle at jargon is because they see it as an exclusionary language. People like jargon because it makes them feel special and part of a special group. Misusing jargon is a surefire ticket to ostracism however. If you are going to use language, make sure you understand what it really means before you start throwing it around. “Ping” was cute when the people using it knew what “ping” meant.

    Personally, my problem is with people who create new words. We need to go “ideate” some more. I heard that in a meeting and waited for everyone to laugh…they didn’t…and they used it again and again. Ugh. That kind of thing annoys me. But then again, part of team building is developing your own norms and even language…it is not per se a bad thing. The people who complain about these things are usually complaining because they feel left out of the “inner circle.” I think, to that extent, getting all fired up about jargon can be self-defeating.

  13. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Love the post! A few comments:

    * as someone above alluded to, jargon is a tribal affiliation. As in, we all speak the same (twisted, hackneyed) language and those other people don’t. Being fluent in Jargonese is a critical skill when dealing with pompous asses who question your authority and value tribal loyalty. It’s a way to say We Are Academics or We are Engineers, and everyone else is different from us. Or, We Are Special.

    * ‘low hanging fruit’ in my world = ‘let’s only deal with people we already know and make no effort to extend our work beyond my [the boss’s] personal network’.

    * touching base for me is really that. I’m changing jobs and I’m fervently updating my LinkedIn connections to make sure that I don’t lose touch with the people I like/respect. I’ve been dropping emails to associates at my new institution to say hi. Hmmm, maybe I do want something (a beer)?

  14. Rene Banaag Jr.
    Rene Banaag Jr. says:

    Aside from the very nice write-up, I just want to say you are so pretty in your picture..

  15. Peter Degen-Portnoy
    Peter Degen-Portnoy says:

    Hi Penelope,

    I am proud to consider you a friend. Thank you for thinking of me in the same light.

    Yours,

    Peter

  16. Mary Baum
    Mary Baum says:

    I think a lot of the language around social media is reaching cliche status, and very soon the conventions of Twitter and, less so, Facebook are going to be the new jargon. (Assuming they don’t just go straight into the language at large.)

    Which brings me to the phenomenon, already overdiscussed, of the self-styled social-media guru. Seems to me that’s spread so fast because it gives a lot of folks a way to join the digital age as professionals, they think, without having to learn significant technical skills: no html/css, no jargon they didn’t want to learn. Not even the discipline of maintaining a blog!

    All they need to do is fill out a few dialogue boxes and type in some text fields – and, boom! Now they’re on the cutting edge!

    Of course, it would help if more of them had started two or three years ago and not last May . . .

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