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Above board – do you understand company jargon?

An article by Giulia De Cesare, Senior Trainer at Plain Words Ltd

Are you alienating your clients by using jargon and management speak?

Blue-sky thinking

Does everyone sing from the same hymn sheet at your office? Have you got all your ducks in a row? And do you successfully leverage your core competencies? Or do you have too many Chiefs and not enough Indians?

Management speak pervades modern business

Management speak like this has become a joke in the last few years, and is widely sent up by television comedians. But despite the mockery, it continues to pervade modern business and some terms are becoming common in general life.

It's not that unusual these days to hear something described as ‘above-board’, meaning open and honest, or ‘put it in the circular file’ to mean, ‘bin it.’

There's nothing new about using language to separate those in the know from those who aren't. The trouble with being exclusive is that you need by definition to exclude somebody.

So who are you excluding? Company outsiders? Unfortunately, a lot of companies end up excluding customers and even their own staff.

Management jargon is a barrier to communication

A recent survey by Investors in People UK found that over half of employees consider management jargon to be a barrier to communication rather than a help.

Managers who over-use jargon are seen as insecure or untrustworthy. And if it's in documents aimed at customers, in-house company jargon can annoy and confuse them.

Use plain words

If the term is one you've used for years, and everyone around you uses, it can be hard to recognise that it's actually jargon and not familiar to everyone.

For example, the term ‘fee-earner’ is used by legal firms. The first time I heard it, I thought they were talking about someone called ‘Fiona.’ So how can you be sure that your pet phrases really are common knowledge?

Go back to basics in your writing

The best way is to go back to basics in your writing: get rid of the padding and choose familiar words that everyone recognises instead of trying to ‘showcase your erudition in a loquacious manner.’

A good rule of thumb is to explain things as you would to a close friend or relative who's perfectly intelligent but isn't familiar with your business.

Would you tell this person you were, for example, trying to ‘incentivise’ your staff? More likely, you'd say ‘motivate’.

Using plain words doesn't mean ‘dumbing down’

Using plain words doesn't mean ‘dumbing down’ the message, though. It means making things easier for your reader, especially if you are talking about something that is already complex. You just make things twice as difficult by dressing it up in complicated language.

Management meeting bingo

If the prospect of yet another management meeting bores you to tears you may like to take along Plain Words' own version of Management Meeting Bingo.

Each square contains a phrase of management speak and when you hear it spoken in your meeting just put a cross in the box. Just like the real thing, the aim is get either a line or even a full house.

We'll leave it up to you whether or not you shout ‘bingo!’

Send us your unusual examples of management speak

Please email us at to receive your bingo card, which you can print and distribute as you wish. It comes complete with a handy definition of what each term really means. If you have some unusual examples of management speak, email them to us and we'll give you our best guess on what we think they mean: this could be what your customers are assuming as well!

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