This article also appeared in Finweek magazine in their 27-Sep-2012 print issue and online.
When I was still working in corporate as a clinical trial project manager, my manager sent an email to his boss describing how I’d beaten the targets on two of our research trials. Without thinking, he used lots of the lingo that everyone in our department understood, like FPV, LPV, ER and so on. When I got home that night, I gave the email to my husband to read. “Well, what do you think? Pretty cool, hey?” I asked, bursting with excitement.
However, after going through it three or four times, he looked at me blankly and said (as diplomatically as he could): “I can see you’re really excited about this, and it must be good news. But I’m really sorry. I don’t understand a word of this email. Can you tell me what it means?”
I learnt a fundamental lesson that day. It really brought home to me just how critical it is to communicate in a way that anyone can understand. It doesn’t matter if they are a child, a foreigner or someone outside your field.
Sadly, with the birth of business schools and the MBA degree, plus new words to describe more and more emerging technologies, business communications have in many cases gotten worse, not better.
Why is this bad for business and relationships?
1. Jargon creates distrust
In the MBA classroom, many of my classmates tried to impress the lecturers and each other with big words and all the latest business lingo. So presentations and assignments were littered with jargon and acronyms like ROI, NPV, capex, the value chain, the burning platform, and more.
The truth is, jargon hurts you more than it helps you. Why? Because it damages your relationships with clients, co-workers and people who matter. Whether you’re a doctor, an engineer or an MBA grad, every discipline has lingo and shorthand. These may sound important – and like the official language of an elite club that you want to join. But in reality, they make no sense. When communicating with people outside your field, using jargon doesn’t show expertise. In fact, quite the opposite: they create a feeling of exclusion and make the listener feel stupid. And people who feel shut out and stupid around you, don’t want to work with you. It’s that simple. So lose the jargon.
2. With complexity, the message gets lost in translation
The following is a real paragraph that I found on a company’s website:
“ABC Company’s processes let people grow competencies that increase personal productivity generating growth in economic capacity. It is achieved through enhanced connectivity and relationships of the people in a community as a whole by serving the individual in his/her home and place of work.”
Did you even understand that? I tried summing it up in one sentence, but gave up because I didn’t even understand what the author was trying to say.
To communicate means to share a message or knowledge, to educate. If the other person doesn’t understand you, then you haven’t shared anything except empty words. All you’ve done is make the other person feel stupid and irritated. Messages lost in translation translate into misunderstanding, frustration, and wasted time and money. All of these hurt you and your business.
So how can we communicate better?
Two centuries ago, Mark Twain was spot-on when in 1880 he wrote in a letter to a young writer: “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English – it’s the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them – then the rest will be valuable.”
How can you communicate to be understood, to have more impact? Here are some simple yet powerful tools:
• Replace jargon with plain English. Don’t use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can use an English equivalent instead.
• Use shorter words.
• Shorten your sentences. Use fewer words to get your point across. If a long sentence is difficult to read or understand, break it up into two sentences.
• Ask questions, then answer them.
• Write the way you speak. It’s much easier to read.
• Be specific.
• Use active verbs (“I gave the talk”), instead of passive (“the talk was given by me”). Active is shorter and easier to understand.
• Work the big idea into your first paragraph (a top-down approach), and then sum it up again at the end. This is a fantastic way to make sure your reader gets the main message.
• Use the KISS principle – “Keep it simple, Stupid”. Your key goal should be simplicity. Cut out unnecessary complexity and clutter. KISS works, and there are numerous examples in the business world to prove it. Think iPhone versus Blackberry, or Paypal versus bricks-and-mortar banks. With Paypal you can set up and start paying and being paid in minutes. Opening a bank account, by contrast, can take weeks and reams of documents, plus handing over your house as security.
With your communications, keep your focus on the end-goal and your audience. The aim is to share a message. And the easier that message is to understand, the more likely your audience will respond the way you want.