It was George Bernard Shaw who famously said: “The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” It is my opinion that using corporate jargon significantly contributes to this illusion.

Just as French is the default language of Parisians, and English that of Londoners, corporate jargon has become the default language of business. When everyone understands exactly what the jargon means, it can be a very efficient way to communicate. However, the assumption that every person comprehends the jargon used can lead to hidden consequences.

My work takes me to corporate offices all over the world and regardless of whether I am in the professional service firms of Sydney or the financial district in Melbourne, the jargon I hear is the same. Irrespective of the company or country, people talk about ‘moving the needle’ or ‘needing a step change’. People are still feeling the desire to ‘run things up flagpoles’ or to ‘think outside the square’. On the surface it sounds like everyone knows what they are talking about. ‘Singing from the same hymn sheet’, they would most likely say.

When I help leaders communicate more effectively, I have the liberty to ask people what they mean. Often the reality is that very few people can explain the jargon they use.

This makes me think that either:

  • they don’t really understand it themselves, or
  • they have never had anyone ask them before to explain it.

As everyone is talking about customer value propositions or brand narratives, the assumption is that they actually know what it is. This illusion can be shattered by simply asking a couple of questions.

Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The very good leaders have an ability to uncomplicate the complicated and communicate in a way that people understand and connect with. To do this, they often use stories and metaphors, or provide examples. Most importantly, they reduce unnecessary jargon.

Whether it is intentional on unintentional, using corporate jargon can:

  1. Negatively impact on people’s understanding of business messages, such as the new strategy or change.
  2. Decrease employee’s engagement in company values which means they remain espoused values not values in action.
  3. Disconnect and isolate people if there is not a strong culture of being prepared to ask, ‘what does that mean?’
  4. Reduce trust as people can feel the truth is being hidden behind the corporate speak.

And these are only the consequences within the organisation. Once corporate jargon becomes part of the default dialogue, employees will inadvertently start using jargon with customers. The consequences above are then translated to the customers, especially a lack of trust and engagement.