5-second summary
  • Corporate jargon gets a bad rap, but there are some situations where it’s appropriate.
  • Specialized vocabulary can lend precision to communication between individuals that share specialized knowledge in niche industries like science, business, or the arts.
  • Ultimately, the goal of any interaction is to be understood – don’t let jargon get in the way.

It’s easy (and admittedly fun) to mock corporate jargon – but is it always bad? Why do we use jargon in the first place?

We asked Ellen Jovin, an executive communications consultant and author of “Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian,” for some insight. Her answers reveal a more nuanced conversation, but with a relatively simple takeaway: always communicate to be understood.

[The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.]

5 questions about corporate jargon with executive communications consultant Ellen Jovin

1. When is corporate jargon appropriate?

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Jargon is not all bad. Jargon is sometimes necessary. Experts need specialized vocabulary to communicate with one another efficiently about specialized topics involving specialized knowledge. That’s true in science, in business, in the arts. And there’s nothing wrong with that, assuming you use your industry jargon wisely. If you’re a financial expert talking about esoteric financial products to fellow financial experts, you can use insider vocabulary to add precision and expedite communication.

But if you’re communicating with a lay audience, you have to simplify your language and use mutually intelligible words and expressions. Many people know this in theory, but in practice they don’t adapt their wording sufficiently.

Besides specialized industry-specific jargon, there’s a whole world of business buzzwords. Those are a drag on communication across many types of professional activities. Here’s an exaggerated example I sometimes use: “We need to incentivize our employees enterprisewise to develop core competencies and best practices proactively, thus operationalizing our synergies and ensuring value adds for all our clients.”

Sentences full of hot-air buzzwords pretty much guarantee audience misery. Miserable readers and listeners are not receptive readers and listeners. They are confused and annoyed.

2. Do people use too much jargon because they’ve learned to “speak corporate?” And do they sometimes use insider lingo to cover up the fact that they don’t know what they’re talking about?

People use jargon for a variety of different reasons. They may want to show off their insider knowledge and sound important. They may mistakenly associate complexity with sophistication. They may just think that’s what professional communication is about. People enter the workforce and are unfamiliar with their new industry. All around them they hear new terms, and it might seem like everyone is using jargon all the time (though that is rarely true) – so they start using it too.

And yes, sometimes jargon is tucked in there to conceal a lack of knowledge. Often, though, I suspect people aren’t aware they’re concealing anything; they think they’re doing things right. In business writing classes, having students try to write definitions of buzzwords can help illuminate a very real lack of consensus on meaning. Without consensus on words’ meanings, communication breaks down.

Occasionally people are motivated by an unfortunate desire to intimidate people with less experience: “I know this and you don’t.” And people don’t like to feel ignorant, so they may just pretend they get it.  

3. We like to champion writing “in plain English,” but many worry this is too casual for some audiences. Why do some feel that certain audiences need jargon?

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Businesspeople sometimes tell me they are afraid of insulting their audience by oversimplifying. I see this a lot with finance or technology experts who must explain their ideas to people without the same expertise. They refer to financial products or phenomena without explaining terms. IT experts assume knowledge people just don’t have, or tell them more than they need to know about intricate technical details. We don’t always know what other people know, but paying attention to audience feedback can help us make adjustments over time.

There’s a lot of confusion about natural language and formality. Natural language is not necessarily informal; it can be entirely formal and professional. For example, you could write “As per your request, please find attached the Connors analysis,” or you could say “Here’s the Connors analysis you asked for – let me know if you need anything else.” The first sounds awkward and unnatural; the second sounds human. Human is not informal. Human is what we are. There are always human beings on either end of business communication.

If you fear you’ve lost touch with the lives of laypeople, consider inviting a couple of hungry nonspecialist friends or relatives over for dinner. Between courses, you can read them sentences from your specialist writing and see what causes the greatest confusion and/or loss of appetite.

4. How can we use jargon effectively?

Specialized language in a profession is legitimate and necessary. But sometimes it’s over the top. Is it every other word? Are the sentences too bulked up on jargon? Specialists sometimes go overboard even with other specialists.

When I was studying comparative literature in graduate school, I encountered plenty of writing in the field that was user-unfriendly. If you’re using jargon to impress or intimidate rather than to communicate, that’s a problem. Use human-friendly language and human-friendly sentence structure to combine the more difficult vocabulary in your ideas. And skip the buzziest buzzwords entirely! No one ever says, “Gee, I wish there had been more jargon in that proposal.”

5. Any advice about retiring certain jargon and/or inventing new jargon, new metaphors, or new words to convey better meaning?

I have lived a happy life almost entirely devoid of buzzwords. By avoiding them, I avoid having to worry about their expiration date. Still, as with all types of language, we are doomed to sound dated at times. That’s a benefit of teenagers and newer employees: they remind us when we’re stale. If we listen to and learn from them, they can help us avoid linguistic obsolescence.

Communicate to be understood, not to “sound smart”

For a brief time, the word synergy used in a business context was probably exciting. But its shelf life was short. Nowadays, it would be better to say almost anything but. “Say it in plain English” means taking the guesswork out of words like synergy.

Jargon has its place, but be mindful that in many instances it alienates, confuses, and obscures. Your overall goal should be clarity, and the truth is nobody wants to read something that’s vague and full of jargon. Be clear, and aim to be understood – that’s your first priority.

When is it okay to use corporate jargon?