You Lost Me at Blah Blah Blah

The perils of business jargon

by Charles Epstein


“Tell me again…what is it that you do?”

Huh? You’ve just spent three to four minutes spelling it out. But it’s not the first time. So you clear your throat, throw your shoulders back, reload and try again. You wait three beats for it to sink in, when, finally, she breaks the tense silence.

“Interesting,” she says, as her gaze wanders out the window where she wouldn’t at all be surprised to see your flying saucer illegally parked in the handicapped spot.

This is when you realize that you’ve done it again: because you have lost all ability to know when you’ve lapsed into impenetrable jargon or vapid business speak, you’ve once again failed to communicate. At the end of the day…in the final analysis…for all intents and purposes, you stranded your correspondent roughly two sentences after hello. She looks at you like you’re an annoying sound effect — muted squawks and sad trombones. How humiliating.

George Bernard Shaw once referred to England and the U.S. as two countries separated by a common language. You may think you are speaking perfect English and you’re words are being interpreted properly, but you may be surprised by how often you are mistaken. The good news is that it’s not your fault — not entirely. Business jargon is like a virus — incubated in lecture halls, spread in conference rooms, borne by trade journals, carried in company reports. It’s highly transmittable and lingers in the system for years, undetected and untreated.

As a public relations/communications specialist, I’m very conscious of lapsing into cliche or jargon. Sometimes I wince when words escape that I immediately know would win someone huge amounts of “bullshit bingo” points. But when speaking to someone in the industry it’s often a convenient shorthand that gets the point across. What’s a few cringe-inducing comments between business interlocutors?

However, it’s easy to put yourself on the receiving end, simply because you’re so often on the receiving end. Even when casually conversing at an ostensibly non-business related event, someone will lose you in a tsunami of professional jargon. Outwardly you’re polite, you nod and toss in a knowing “uh-huh,” and complete the picture with a far-away look of mindful mindfulness. Still, you find yourself increasingly irritated, frustrated, confused, and, if you let it go on long enough, angry.

In “House of Lies,” an “anti-business business book” on management consultants by a management consultant, the author Martin Kihn says that consultants jargon “must function along very slender dimensions, creating a patina of authority while also seeming quite clearly to say something to the listener …” The book contains twelve pages of consultant jargon (“blue sky” for “brainstorm,” or “bio break” for defecation, “counsel out” for pink slip).

It’s not easy to kick the habit, let alone know you’re slipping into jargon in the midst of an exchange. Recovery begins with self-recognition. How many times over the past several weeks or months have you retreated from a conversation muttering, “he doesn’t get it?” How often does your significant other call you over to explain to a neighbor what it is you do for a living? Why is it every time you try to explain a particular thing the other guy is shooting his cuffs to steal a look at his watch? If you notice this happening with any regularity, you need to start re-evaluating and look for an app that sends a jolt down your spine any time you cross the line. This being said, there’s always the possibility that it’s not your lapse into business or professional speak that’s off-putting…maybe you’ve developed a tic, you’re grooming is not as rigorous as it could be or, gasp, you’re just not that interesting. We’d like to end with the assurance that we will cover these issues in a follow-up post, but, regrettably, they fall outside our area of expertise.


Charles Epstein is President of BackBone, Inc., a pr and marketing firm specializing in technology, healthcare and workforce management. For more, visit www.backboneinc.com.