Decoding Corporate Jargon: Can We Really Make Words Mean So Many Different Things?
We’ve all seen it; we’ve all mocked it and we’re all guilty of it—slipping into convenient jargon and buzzwords to describe a new business idea or process or product. We’ve strategized, we’ve monetized, we’ve run things up the flagpole and we’ve even strayed into the odd sandbox. Sometimes we do it then cringe self-apologetically, sometimes we do it without thinking and sometimes we imagine, rightly or wrongly, that we’ve improved the conversation by linguistically capturing a many-sided concept.
In that lies the contradiction inherent in jargon. On the one hand, it obfuscates and excludes: We use corporate language to show that we are part of a tribe, that we understand the rules by which the tribe lives, and we also use words as sand to throw in the eyes of others. How often have you told a colleague that something is on your horizon, an action point for you or the next item on your to-do list? What you mean, of course, is that you haven’t done it, your colleague knows you haven’t done it and you know that he or she knows. But still, we engage in the dance.
Disentangling corporate jargon would take—and indeed has taken—shelves of books. But I want to point to the meaning behind it. Sometimes jargon is more profound than mere obfuscation; it embodies, or tries to embody, a genuine shift of meaning behind innovative language. If it’s used properly, it can give a name to the deed and help show how real progress can be made. I’ll use a few examples to try to show you what I mean.
Meaningless Example: “The post-pandemic office will be transformed into a dynamic worker hub.”
Translation: “We’re going to save money on real estate, so you’ll all come in a few days a week, but there aren’t enough desks.”
What It Can Mean: A hub should be a place where different things come together, whatever those things are. A decade ago, engineering giant Arup proposed that a transport “hub” should be built at London’s Heathrow airport, and it would have been a genuinely innovative coming-together of air and rail travel to connect the UK’s regions with Europe and the wider world. The idea was too ambitious for a rather cautious government, but this kind of creative thinking can be assisted by terminology which changes the boundaries of the conversation.
Meaningless Example: “Let’s front-load this project with some low-hanging fruit.”
Translation: “Here are some easy steps to get the project going.”
What It Can Mean: Fundamentally, progress on anything comes in two kinds: qualitative and quantitative. You can give 10 of your team members new monitors or you can give one a total tech upgrade, with new laptop, more cloud storage and so on. That’s not an earth-shattering fact, but absorbing the two types of progress and recognizing the different values of each is hugely important. Quick, superficial progress—picking the “low-hanging fruit”—can give a project some early momentum, which will help it overcome more significant challenges, and provide a team with early motivation and positive feedback. So the low-hanging fruit isn’t worthless; indeed, it can be vital. But it’s only worth having if you understand it in context and see it for what it is. It’s part of the harvest, and it may be a very juicy part, but it’s never the whole crop. Get that, and you’re seeing the strategic picture.
The New Normal
Meaningless Example: “Customer-focused service is going to be the new normal.”
Translation: “We’ve heard this new idea and we want people to think that we’re totally on board.”
What It Can Mean: This is a pandemic classic. Last summer, we were all talking about the new normal: working from home, flexible hours, remote learning, employees moving out of cities, real estate declining in value. In fact, as we claw our way out of lockdown, it’s becoming apparent that the new normal might be a lot more like the old normal than we thought. But if you think about the phrase, chew it over and digest it, its meaning is profound: These are changes which you cannot simply introduce and trumpet. They must become second nature; they must become an integral part of your existence. If working from home is the new normal, then the whole ‘feel’ of your business will be totally different. Employees aren’t ‘off’ for a few days, they’re not ‘just checking emails,’ they’re fully part of your workforce, running at 100 percent but simply in a different location.
You will have your own pet peeves and bugbears. And some jargon is simply new makeup on an old face. But it can signal the transformative. So, think about it and analyze it. Don’t be afraid to ridicule and discard, but make sure you’ve thought it through. Let’s drill down together.
Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.