5-second summary

  • Research shows that unclear language can undermine trust in your message.
  • Rather than focusing on phrasing, strive to make a clear and original point, says author Joel Schwartzberg.
  • Many pieces of business jargon are overused and imprecise. Substituting sharper alternatives will make a more compelling case to your audience.
  • Who doesn’t love mocking business jargon? It’s just so fun and easy to hit the ground running, do the heavy lifting, keep our feelers out, be game-changingly disruptive and iterate on our synergies. Ping me!

    Many people added their corp-speak pet peeves to our recent community post about business jargon, with examples like “action that,” “the ask is,” and my new (cringey) favorite, from community leader Brittany Joiner, “single throat to choke.”

    Yikes. (I think that means to improve your focus? Let’s hope.)

    But we can’t just make fun of overused business jargon. We need alternatives. Research indicates that clearer language helps people not only understand, but trust what you’re saying. It’s even advisable to start teaching writing in your organization because if your messaging is precise, helpful, and includes relatable examples without overdoing the clichéd corp-speak, well, that’s where the rubber really meets the road.

    Focus on fresh points, not fresh words or phrases

    “The desire to communicate ‘in fresh ways’ should be reframed as the desire to communicate authentically,” says Joel Schwartzberg, author of “Get to the Point!” and “The Language of Leadership.” “To convey authenticity, speakers should avoid and reject words and phrases that don’t match their natural speaking style or vocabulary.”

    Schwartzberg adds that a great tool for conveying uniqueness and authenticity is to tell personal stories that illustrate points. “[But] the most critical part of strategic storytelling,” he says, “is not the story itself, but where the speaker says something like, ‘This story illustrates why.’ Without that line, the story may be riveting but not relevant.”

    In terms of being “fresh” and relevant, Schwartzberg advises us to focus on conveying fresh points –versus fresh words or phrases. “Ultimately, you don’t want your audience to take away your words,” he says. “You want them to take away your point. Having a vibrant and original point is the best way to make sure it will have an impact. Tactical words and phrases support that delivery.”

    At the end of the day (see what I did there?), it’s about the command of what you’re trying to communicate. A “double-click” here and there could work. And let’s not forget, humans love slang, idioms, and parlance. It’s how we communicate, how we relate to one another in different settings. But, “Using corporate jargon,” says Schwartzberg, “even simply haughty words like ‘efficacy,’ ‘iterate,’ ‘synergy,’ and ‘robust,’ signal that the speaker is thinking of themselves and not the audience.”

    And that’s really the crux, isn’t it? Whether or not you’re doing your best to communicate and help someone understand.

    6 examples of bad business jargon (according to one professional writer) – and what to use instead

    Do you know your communication style at work? Take our quiz to find out

    1. Mission-critical

    Here’s the question: are you going to Mars?

    Not to be overly facetious (maybe you are going to Mars?) but any time I read about a mission, I mostly think rockets.

    The problem with repeatedly saying that something is “mission-critical” is that it’s difficult to gauge when something is actually mission-critical – as in, essential to existence or operation – and when you’re simply talking about a feature, tool, or update that’s simply important or even nice to have. A keyboard is mission-critical to my existence as a professional writer, for example. Is what you’re describing similar?

    In short, use “mission-critical” sparingly. Save it for when something is actually, honest-to-goodness, I’m-serious-this-is-so-important essential your audience must have it.

    Try instead: Essential. Necessary. Needed.

    More than just using a different word, it’s all about what you’re describing that’s “mission-critical.” Aim for authentic reasons and clear points. Tell your audience a story or anecdote to give them an example that helps them understand. If you can focus on specific benefits to your audience, especially by addressing strong real-situation examples, you’ll make more sense, earn trust, and get better results.

    2. Seamless

    Especially with respect to technology and how apps play (or don’t play) nicely with each other, seamless is the desired state of being for everything. So, here again: this word is overused and imprecise. If everything is seamless, is anything seamless? (Philosophical question of the day.)

    Since we’re all looking for seamless experiences, if you say that something is seamless, well, it better be. For example, the UX of connecting a Trello card to a Confluence instance. (Not that those are our products or anything.) The process is intuitive and achievable in a few clicks. It’s a seamless experience. (And perhaps mission-critical for some?) But if seamless really doesn’t apply to the situation you’re describing…

    Try instead: Smooth. Continuous. Uninterrupted. Fast.

    Again, more important than word choice is the what. What is “seamless?” The experience itself? How your product integrates with another? The user’s experience when performing an action or task? The more we can say with precision what we’re talking about, the more understanding will be achieved.

    How to write SMART goals

    3. Full disclosure, full transparency

    First off, these aren’t the same. To disclose means to reveal, especially something secret or unknown. And to be transparent, well, this excellent word means to “be easy to perceive or detect.”

    Question: Do you, like me, wince when someone starts a sentence with “full transparency?” I start preparing myself for something awful. What are they about to drop on me?

    So what’s the problem here? This statement is:

    1. Using transparency in the disclosure sense.
    2. Making transparency seem like something one might, uh, wield.

    Here’s the thing: I would certainly hope my teammates are being transparent. That is, having thoughts, motives, and feelings that are easy for me to perceive. And if there’s something I should know, something that might be relevant that’s hidden from me, I would also hope a teammate would disclose that information to me in the interest of clear and full communication.

    Try instead: In truth. To be candid. I’m going to be straightforward. Let me be direct.

    Don’t let pat phrases obscure your true intentions, especially when you might end up putting your listener on edge. What you mean to say (I hope) is that you’re “telling it like it is.” You’re being honest. Good! Say what you mean and don’t hide behind a vague phrase.

    4. Best in breed, best in class, best, best, best

    Everyone wants their product or service to top The Best List. But overuse of grand phrases like these can quickly ring hollow. The key is description.

    Are you saying, essentially, that among all the other products, yours is the undisputed best because of a certain designation or award? OK, then, maybe “best” is fair. But too often, “best” is used for things that are among the best or even aspiring to be among the best.

    Take it a step further and tell your readers much more about what your product or service actually stand out in comparison to others, and let your audience decide.

    Try instead: Uniquely crafted. Specially designed. Created by accounting professionals for accounting professionals. Brought to you by the team that invented Trello (or Jell-O, or whatever you’ve got).

    There’s power in ditching the grandiosity and talking about what makes your selling point or value proposition outstanding.

    5. Leverage

    Phweeet! The ref just blew the whistle. Unnecessary and flagrant use of leverage. Yes, sometimes it’s a handy word that stands in for “takes advantage of” or “makes use of” but, be honest, do you flinch a little every time you hear it? Leverage just sounds wonky, even though most us have probably used it. (Guilty.)

    Adaptavist’s Nic Brough was blunt in our community chat: “‘Leverage’ is not a good word, it’s terrible.” Nic says he prefers to say “use,” because leverage is not an appropriate one-to-one replacement for “use,” and it can even have negative connotations.

    Try instead: Makes use of. Connects to. Works with.

    Leverage is a word that really illustrates the point: jargon often distances you from your audience. Use simpler language to be both clearer and friendlier.

    6. Single source of truth

    Have everything in one place for all to reference? You win! You might even call this your single source of truth. But be careful. What tends to happen is overuse of this phrase dilutes its actual meaning. That is, if something is indeed your single source of truth, where stakeholders, contributors, and others alike can get the information they need, rock on. But too often that’s not entirely true.

    A “single source of truth” should be the agreed-upon source for a specific type of information. For example, you might be able to get data from other sources, but this (page or tool) is the final authority. It’s not so much about getting all the information, it’s getting the right information – in one place.

    Try instead: Information or reference hub. Storehouse. One-stop shop.

    Public service announcement: English idioms can be confusing for non-native speakers

    There’s an often overlooked and important element of this conversation: speakers of other languages. Community leader Nic Brough of Adaptavist wrote, “When your work is with countries where English (or variants such as Australian or American) are the primary language, phrases like ‘flogging a dead horse,’ ‘memory of a goldfish,’ or ‘dead cow’ are moderately understandable (if a bit animal cruel). They often have equivalent phrases or idioms in non-English languages, but idioms generally translate very, very badly. Which is why I always encourage people to speak in base English, without idioms or jargon.” 

    I must admit, the Atlassian editorial team and I have debated over many a headline before suddenly realizing, Wait a minute. Will a non-American have any clue what this means?

    When it comes to idiomatic language and communicating with non-native English speakers (and non-American-English speakers, for that matter), Nic has an awesome suggestion: “Try asking ‘How do you say this in your language?’“

    Which I think is brilliant. You invite a discussion about possible misunderstanding while learning a cool new way to say something at the same time.

    It’s important to sound, as much as possible, like we’re the experts. One way of doing that is not by making things complicated, but the opposite: making them simple. The language we choose helps us do that. As Charles Mingus, the famous jazz musician, once said: “Anyone can make the simple complicated. Creativity is making the complicated simple.”

    Save the pat, repeated marketing speak for the “perfect” time… or maybe no time at all. Instead, take the time to say what you mean in a relatable and understandable way.

    Lastly, stop using lastly.

    Check out Joel Schwartzberg’s recent article in Harvard Business Review, “Find the Right Words to Inspire Your Team,” for more of his insights.

    6 examples of business jargon you should stop using now