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Is Jargon Hijacking Your Communications?

Portrait of confused businesswoman on blackboard

“I don’t understand.”

Not the words you want to hear from your clients or your teams. And certainly not the words you want to be thinking when you’re the customer.

The truth is, everyone wants to sound knowledgeable.

If you have an advanced degree or specialized training in a certain field, that can be a big credibility booster. It might even be your essential differentiator in a competitive market. But trying to verbally demonstrate your expertise in every conversation will likely backfire.

Just because you can talk intelligently for hours about the net asset value or the bilateral hemothorax doesn’t mean you should—unless, of course, you are chatting with colleagues who also use those concepts regularly.

If your messages to other people end up packed with high-level market terms and complex industry jargon, you might be inadvertently undermining your own credibility. All of that knowledge will sabotage your success if you don’t learn to speak the customer’s language.

Clear communication is a make-it-or-break-it skill for business success, no matter what role we play. Vendor, customer or leader.

Communication is a two-way street. It involves listening intently. Speaking in a way that helps the audience understand. And genuinely connecting with them through the message.

While it might be tempting to toss in those multisyllabic terms every chance you get, avoid the temptation. Otherwise, your communications may get hijacked by jargon and your results will suffer.

You don’t actually have to become fluent in someone else’s “business language” to be successful. The most important thing is to demonstrate an effort, showing an interest in their perspective and empathy for their challenges.

Here’s an example. I recently prepared for a doctor’s appointment by doing some online research, learning about the proper medical terms for my condition, and posting some questions on the patient portal. That allowed my doctor to review them in advance and be more prepared for a productive appointment. I wanted to show that I understood and respected her time limitations.

In return, when I went for the appointment, I noticed that her explanations were jargon-free. I didn’t feel intimidated or belittled. She actually seemed to appreciate my effort to learn and encouraged me to ask more questions. We were both accountable for our communications, and that created a smooth, efficient appointment.

It’s easy to get caught in the jargon trap from any side of the equation. If you’ve worked with an attorney, auto repair technician, landscape architect, consultant, or any other type of specialized professional, I’m guessing you’ve had that same experience. It’s frustrating to be bombarded with information you don’t fully understand.

As customers, we deserve clear, meaningful conversations that allow us to make informed decisions about the products or services we are purchasing. We want people to speak our language and convert their jargon into words the average person can comprehend. Gifted communicators might even use symbolism or relevant metaphors to help us grasp certain concepts.

I’m not opposed to someone using correct terminology—in fact, that helps me to learn—but I want to work with people who take a few moments to make sure I understand what they are explaining. Meet me halfway. Use the complex terms but then translate them into layman’s language as a professional courtesy. If I’m the one in the conversation who has to constantly ask for clarification and definitions, I begin to feel disrespected. And if you ignore my needs as a customer, I probably won’t be one for long!

Internally, clear communications are equally powerful. Managers responsible for getting a corporate vision to trickle down to the masses know the value of skipping the jargon and using direct, straightforward language. They strive for alignment and connection in everything they do. And when they hear employees repeating their primary phrases and statements, they know that their teams have “gotten the message.”

Don’t let jargon get in the way of your success.

If you’re the customer, do your part to learn the terms that matter, and demand clear explanations. If you’re providing the product or service, learn your customer’s language and be sensitive to their level of understanding. And if you’re a leader, communicate in a simple, memorable way that resonates with your team.

Whatever role you play, remember this:  convoluted communications are just bad for business.

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