While it might be appealing to use impressive-sounding words, jargon often hurts your credibility as an executive. You can make people understand you by removing jargon from your speech.
Specialists in their respective fields have always had to deal with jargon. It doesn’t matter if you’re a politician, soldier, or firefighter. Each profession has its own set of terminology that includes technical terms and meanings not found in everyday speech. This is particularly true for tech leaders where “ping” can refer to anything from a network packet, a text message, or an elaborately-crafted mail.
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The most dangerous aspect of jargon is when it becomes obscure and meaningless, but is still used to communicate with other travelers. Digital transformation can now be used to refer to everything and everything at the same time. One person’s digital transformation may be a major shift in the corporate strategy. Another person might refer to a software update using the same words.
Clarity and reducing jargon are more important than communicating effectively. Imagine that your stakeholders have different expectations and goals for the digital transformation project. Your vendor might offer a partial solution that addresses some of the concerns of your stakeholders. They might gouge your budget and chase contradictory or unclear requirements.
Instead of agreeing, seek clarity
First, reduce the use of jargon as leaders. A second step is to ensure clarity and confirmation when communicating important information. If you are concerned that Todd in accounting doesn’t understand the reason he won’t get the feature in the new financial program, don’t ask them if they’re “managing accounting expectations.” Ask your team to clarify with Todd why he isn’t getting the feature. Even better, ask them how they will approach Todd and what communication they will use.
Just asking your team members how they would approach a problem, or what they would do to meet a request will tell you if you have communicated clearly. These questions can be prefaced with the comment “I just want you to ensure I’m communicating clearly.” Would you be able to share your approach and understanding?
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If you can communicate clearly and say you’re trying to communicate well, you will get receptive rather than suspicious.
The same method should be applied when you meet peers and leaders within your company. Instead of accepting jargon or ambiguous terms and hoping that you will figure it out later on, you should ask them if they can rephrase their request. Begin with something like “I’d be happy to test my thinking.” It sounds like what you’re saying is … .”
Sometimes, you might catch a jargon addict using a term that they don’t understand. If you ask for clarification, this can be a frustrating moment. You can avoid awkward moments by saying something like, “I’m glad you’re having the conversation.” I understand that machine learning (or whatever jargon is being used) can mean different things for different people. So it’s wonderful we’re all on the same page.
Avoid calling out people for using jargon in a malicious way and correcting technical definitions. You’ll be branded the “jargon cop” and will be excluded from critical discussions while others try to avoid embarrassment.
Take the Mom Test
Your ability to communicate technical terms to others without technical or industry knowledge is the ultimate test of your technical skills. My mother is my ideal example. Before I go into a meeting and extol the virtues digital transformation or any other mercurial term in general, I envision a conversation in which I explain what it means in plain English.
Take the time to learn why you’re having difficulty with this task. One time, I heard someone describe digital transformation as “transformation that’s digital.” This was clearly a poor response and would not pass the Mom Test. We fall prey to the temptation of repeating a term that is popular among the media, our smart consulting partners or those with superior titles all too often. While it might get you some approval, you’ll ultimately be unable to describe the situation and will likely lose your job.
If you can explain a simplified definition of a term, its benefits to the listener and the risks and rewards, you will be granted a license to use now to educate your audience.
Effective leaders are clear-sighted and can communicate their vision clearly and concisely, especially in technology-related fields. Jargon may offer the Faustian bargain that you sound intelligent, but you will be forced to pay when no one understands what you are talking about.