Do Buzzwords, Jargon, and Acronyms Make Smart People Sound Stupid?

Why we need to write and speak with clarity

Cynthia Marinakos
May 22, 2019 · 7 min read
Illustration by Cynthia Marinakos.

One of my readers, Jean, shared this observation:

“…we all know buzzwords increase as the company size increases ;) I had to do a lot of catching up to get up to speed with what was going on…

[Marketing companies] They LOVE buzzwords even more than big companies and when you end up dealing with more than one it becomes like learning a new language… I’d love a day when we just speak normally but it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen any time soon.”

She’s referring to marketing buzzwords such as: Clickbait. Chatbot. Growth hacking. Disrupter. CRM. SEO. AI. Organic. User-generated-content (UGC). CTR. CTA. SEM. A/B Testing.

And take for example the acronym PM.

In context, perhaps we can assume the reader will work it out.

If we are in a corporate organization, PM can mean Profit Margin, Product Manager, Project Manager, Program Manager.

But as my reader found, if you are new to a company, even in an industry you know, you might still have a lot to learn quickly.

To the average person, perhaps PM means Prime Minister. Private Message. Or afternoon (post meridiem).

Buzzwords, jargon, and acronyms seem to speed up a conversation, a presentation, a meeting, or an article.

But when a person needs to refer to the company glossary or a marketing bible every 10 words, reading (and listening) becomes as smooth as a runner who needs to stop to tie his shoelaces at every corner.

Buzzwords, jargon, and acronyms can slow down communication. Hold back understanding. Cause confusion.

Why do we do it?

It usually begins at school. The more smart-sounding essays we wrote, the better. Of course, structure and good writing help too. But big words seemed to show off our intelligence — and our mastery of a topic.

In university, the silent expectation continues.

While studying for business and information systems degrees, I kept writing in the same way. Sticking to the accepted way of writing. Sticking to the rules. There’s a certain style of writing within business. It seemed the more formal and smart, the better.

I used the word ‘facilitated’ instead of ‘ran’, ‘amend’ instead of ‘change’, ‘demonstrate’ instead of ‘show’.

My friends and I knew the more we sprinkled big words and buzz words into our marketing, management, and accounting essays and exams, the more it sounded like we knew our stuff. And the better marks we would get.

So we spoke of ‘value adding’ processes. How ‘synergies’ could be achieved by being more ‘effective and efficient’. And how to apply ‘best practice’.

It became easy to continue this writing style in our corporate jobs.

We became conditioned to write a certain way, convincing ourselves this is what people want to hear. What they understand.

We also want to sound smart and appear credible. Professional. To fit in. We think this is the way to best get through to other professionals.

And we weren’t the only ones writing this way. Professional services firm Grant Thornton LLP put together a Jargon Index in May 2018. They analyzed 134 corporate jargon terms on Fortune 500 company websites, in press coverage, and on social media. They ranked business jargon by “popularity.”

The five most used corporate jargon:

The problem with jargon

Those words everyone loves to say sound good, don’t they? It sounds like we know what we’re talking about. When secretly, we don’t really know what they mean, do we? How could we, when we — or the people that use them don’t really know?

We either assume meaning— or we are too afraid to call people out. To ask for clarity. To be honest and risk sounding silly. And in writing or speaking, well, we’re all too busy to conjure up more meaningful words.

When we assume people understand what we mean — but they don’t —we create confusion and misunderstanding. Instead of building trust, Forbes reports that business jargon annoys people.

Hubspot created a brilliant infographic in Stop Saying Synergize: 50 Most Annoying and Overused Corporate Jargon Phrases to Avoid in the Office. Here’s a portion of it:

Infographic: Annoying and overused corporate phrases. By Hubspot.

I recently spoke to a healthcare client who asks her team to write content for the clinic’s website.

“Practitioners write as if knowing a second language. They make a lot of assumptions and use abbreviations and Latin terms. But even other practitioners don’t understand concepts. I have to ask them what they mean.”

Isn’t it worth taking a few extra seconds to explain, expand, or cut out potentially confusing words? Even experts prefer plain language.

Experts prefer plain language

In a usability study with domain experts in technology, science, and medical fields, the Nielson Norman Group found highly educated readers crave for clarity. Consider the comments from an IT Manager asked to review two web pages:

Screenshot: PC Mags review. Source: Nielson Norman Group.

PCMags.com:

“This [top area] is short, easy to digest. It gives a very clear picture of what the review… is without reading the review. It gives you information, relevant information, regardless of how much time you spend on it. I can spend ten seconds and get information from that.”

Screenshot: IBM review. Source: Nielson Norman Group.

IBM.com: He didn’t like an article on IBM.com because it used branded terms he didn’t understand, like MessageSight:

“This is probably not a page I’d look into more. It’s got a whole lot of jargon and technical terms I’m not aware of.”

You see, it’s not about education. It’s not about profession. It’s not about your ego. It’s about clarity. It’s about being helpful. It’s about making it easy.

Should we cut it all out?

I’m not saying that we need to cut out jargon, abbreviations, and buzzwords completely.

These can be helpful and clear to people who are familiar with each other. For instance, people working on the same project in the same team for months.

Or another example. I speak of SEO, UI/UX, CRM, and Bounce rate with developers. We have a shared understanding of these terms.

Yet when I speak to clients, I explain what they mean — just in case. And I do it each time I mention the terms.

You see, my clients — mechanics, window shade sellers, amusement centers, property advisors, health clinics, dance schools, shoe retailers — they don’t use these terms often. So it is better to explain more than less.

It’s not about cutting out. It’s about awareness and judgment. Deciding: Do I really need to use these terms? And if you do: How can I be sure everyone understands them?

How to sound smart: What clarity can do for your career or your business

As businesses are realizing the value of hiring people with diverse backgrounds, writing — and speaking with clarity means your message will be understood by more people. Both inside and outside your industry.

When we use jargon, buzzwords, and acronyms too often, instead of showing we are actually ‘best in class’, we’re showing that we’re too lazy to define what that means. Instead of being ‘on the same page’, we turn people off.

But it doesn’t mean you need to stop using these completely.

By using less jargon, you’ll make sense to people who are new to your industry or company. You’ll cause less misunderstanding to people who may not be new. Show your creativity with fresh phrases.

By expanding on acronyms, you make reading smoother, faster, easier to comprehend — and more enjoyable for your reader.

By cutting down the buzzwords, you’ll be appreciated by people whose brains are fried from getting too much information every day.

Show you that you really care about your audience by sharing messages with clarity.

Cut the confusion.

You see, when your audience truly understands your message, you have the opportunity to build stronger relationships. Get that raise. Boost conversions on your landing page. Educate. Boost credibility. Get financing. Get votes for new software — or a pool table in the office.

Be direct. Say what you mean.

“Complexity is your enemy. Any fool can make something complicated. It is hard to make something simple.” — Richard Branson

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Cynthia Marinakos

Written by

Aussie Copywriter. I love rock climbing high ceilings and hiking amongst ferns >> 10 Proven ways to attract more Medium readers: https://bit.ly/3g2e2xx

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

Cynthia Marinakos

Written by

Aussie Copywriter. I love rock climbing high ceilings and hiking amongst ferns >> 10 Proven ways to attract more Medium readers: https://bit.ly/3g2e2xx

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +792K followers.

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