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Are You Spreading Jargonaise?

8/8/2006 1:49:28 PM

By Peter Weddle -- Jargon. We see it all the time and all over the place. Some of us have probably even used it. The simple truth is that these business idioms are rampant in today’s scalable enterprises seeking to leverage their competitive advantage in global markets. Whoops.

But is jargon a problem? Well, if the purpose of communications is to express ideas clearly and with impact, then it probably is. Indeed, such terms as “value-driven” and “mission critical” may convey important ideas to those who use them, but all too often, they are practically meaningless to others. To the recipients of jargon, all those annual reports, project memoranda, e-mail messages, consultants’ findings and other business documents that contain it might as well be written in ancient Icelandic.

Why is that? Jargon should not be confused with professional language or terminology that is unique to, but well understood by, all members of a distinct group (e.g., a specific occupational field). No, jargon is something else altogether. It is composed of words and phrases that fall into one of two categories:

  • Buzzwords. These terms are used so frequently, they have no impact. They may well have put some zip into an idea or concept before it became faddish, but once they pass into hyper popularity, they lose their ability to resonate with an audience. (e.g., value proposition, growth opportunities)

  • Bustwords. These terms are used so broadly, they have no specific meaning. They are used by so many people in so many different circumstances, that they are eventually unable to convey any precise meaning to anyone. (e.g., employer of choice, family friendly)

  • In other words, jargon can sap the power and the definition out of our communications and leave us with something that is about as distinctive as a bland sandwich spread. That’s why I describe documents that are rife with jargon as “jargonaise,” a term that actually denotes “jargon malaise.”

    Do job ads posted online suffer as much from jargonaise as do other business documents? I decided to take a look at some recent ads posted on a major commercial employment site to find out. What I discovered probably won’t surprise you. Job ad jargon is booming. It appeared in almost every posting I read. Although the uses of jargon varied, it was most frequently applied to prospective candidates and employers. Here are some examples.


    proactive, highly motivated, self-motivator, self starter, results-driven, results oriented, high energy, hands-on experience, hands-on leadership style, strategic, attention to detail, proven track record


    customer-focused, employee-centered, dynamic work environment, fast-paced team environment, team-based environment, team oriented working culture, core values, competitive salary

    The front line of the War for the Best Talent is written communications—on your corporate Web-site and in your job postings. Win there, and you’re well on your way to connecting with even the most passive of prospects. Lose there, and your organization will be indistinguishable from every other organization looking for candidates.

    How do you win the communications battle? Simple. By not spreading jargonaise. Unfortunately, however, I do not have a nifty, automated Jargonaise Fighter to help you do that. I do, however, propose the following simple, three-step process that will help get the job done.

  • Step 1: Give every piece of copy—your job postings and your career site content—to an employee (not a hiring manager) to read. For example, if a job ad is targeted at a certain occupational field, ask someone in that field to read it. If the copy is directed at the workforce in general, pick an employee at random and ask them to take a look.

  • Step 2: Give the reader a garish-colored marker and ask them to highlight the jargon they find. Encourage them to draw big circles around everything that they view as hackneyed, meaningless, watered down or unclear.

  • Step 3: Re-write everything with a circle around it. What should you use? Try old fashioned English. If that’s a problem, pick up the wonderfully readable primer on English called Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

    I realize that such a review takes time and adds work. It’s an effort worth making, however, as it will sharpen and differentiate the message you convey to employment candidates. And communicating a powerful message that stands out is the best way to set your employer apart and give it an edge in the War for the Best Talent.

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