What’s Wrong with Plain English? (Or, It’s All Fun and Games until Somebody Gets Hurt)

posted in: Speaking | 3

Every profession has its lingo. Every client hates that lost feeling that comes from drowning in a sea of industry buzzspeak.

You know the words. “Visibility.” “Granular.” “Closing the loop.” From the baffling to the downright silly, these overused business terms seem to become more and more invasive with each passing year. While most professionals don’t intentionally use them to intimidate or annoy, that’s often the effect on clients.

From the perspective of someone who isn’t in the industry, this kind of specialized language comes across as a steady stream of pretentious babble in some cases, or occasionally a meaningless but vaguely dirty suggestion (think “low-hanging fruit” or “open kimono”). Bizmeth? Yeah, we’ve all had bosses we suspected of snorting a little crystal in the bathroom. Wait, that’s a business term? Apparently so.

It can be fun to keep up with the new slang in your niche. Tossing around terms like “event horizon” and “eating your own dog food” is enjoyable and appropriate when you’re in the office surrounded by others who know exactly what you mean, or at a casual networking where cocktails are present.

Often, too, those terms are important bits of knowledge that have real significance. It’s helpful to teach these to your clients or other listeners. “Cloud computing” and “process outsourcing” are examples of language that represents concepts you should definitely share with receptive clients. But “mindshare” is far more likely to evoke a puzzled stare or a quizzical, “Like the Borg?” than it is to inspire understanding. And why should it?

The key to using business buzzwords intelligently is twofold. First, be mindful of your audience. If you’re among others for whom the words hold meaning and possibly humor, knock yourself out! Boil the ocean, boil the frog and deep dive for those innovative B2B solutions until your eyes bubble. Make it pop! Feel free to blue sky your long tail strategy based on hyperlocal rightshoring that leverages your mission critical core competencies all day long. Just don’t inflict this kind of stuff on your clients or other innocent victims – particularly those you hope will become clients.

Second, monitor your listeners for signs of confusion or nausea. If you’re not conveying meaning with your words then you’re wasting your time as well as your audience’s. More importantly, you’re damaging the relationship. People don’t enjoy feeling lost or believing they lack the specific knowledge, general intelligence or necessary background required to make sense of what they hear. You want listeners to walk away with a sense that they know more than they did before you spoke your piece, not just that you know more than they do.

When eyes start glazing or dropping, you probably need to step back for a second to clarify terms or figure out where you lost your way, as these are signs you’re not getting your meaning through in a positive manner, if at all. Because frankly, not everyone likes to hear the kind of language loopiness illustrated in the American Airlines commercial below. A lot of folks still prefer plain old English.

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Sarah Warlick is responsible for making us and all of our clients sound professional and eloquent as the content director at bbr marketing. In this role, Sarah is in charge of ensuring that all copy is well-written, accurate and free of pesky typos before it heads out the door. Additionally, she is a prolific writer and a frequent contributor to bbr marketing’s blog sites. She spends a good deal of time writing copy for our clients and has a unique way of crawling into our clients’ heads to create ghostwritten copy that sounds as if it came directly from their pen.
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3 Responses

  1. Jeffrey W. Schultz
    | Reply


    I love when my competitors don’t use plain English when speaking to potential clients. I usually end up getting the account.


    • Sarah Warlick
      | Reply

      That’s it, Jeff! Clients would much rather hire someone who can clearly communicate with them than someone who makes sense only to other accounting professionals. Speak simply and reap the rewards!

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