A couple weeks ago, I attended the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, a convergence of pretty much every artist and business personality you could imagine. From celebrities, musicians, and filmmakers to global executives, entrepreneurs, and investors, it's all there for your mind-melding pleasure. As a professional communicator and nearly obsessive people observer, one thing I often find myself doing at this particular event is listening in on conversations between individuals and groups of people. Some may call this eavesdropping; I like to think of it as homework.
While it may seem creepy, the rationale is simple: Through these types of observations (whether welcomed or not) I gain knowledge and insights about the evolution of language, culture, and business, and inadvertently modern-day communication. More specifically, the jargon that emerges as we attempt to codify language within certain industries and subcultures becomes apparent.
Dialing back the jargon requires us to take a good hard look at what we are trying to convey and ensuring that those with whom we are speaking will clearly understand the message.
Bryan E. Jones, VP of marketing North America and the Global 500 at Dell, makes the point that jargon is typically used for two reasons: "It's either a shorthanded way to speak to colleagues or others in your industry (which is fine); or it's a shield that says, 'What I do is hard and complex and I want you to stay on your side of the line.'"
Anthony Ray, aka Sir Mix-A-Lot, puts it a little more bluntly: "People think it makes them sound smarter." He adds: "It's not just the tech industry that's guilty of this. It happens in every industry under the sun."
As a longtime entrepreneur (Appboy) and investor (T5 Capital), Mark Ghermezian has seen his fair share of tech-cum-business jargon: "I understand why it exists, and there are definitely some environments where pulling out your 'industry speak' will work; but it's all about context and knowing your audience."
In terms of the technology and business landscape, and in order to decode and rethink some of the most overused and overrated terms, I asked Jones, Ray, and Ghermezian to give me their take. Here are their thoughts on some of the most pervasive catch phrases, what they really mean, and suggestions on what we should we be saying instead.
1. "Social selling."
This was definitely a SxSW favorite, and something I've been hearing rumblings of for the past year. "Social selling as opposed to unsocial selling is pretty ridiculous if you think about it," says Jones. "As if we would ever say to a customer: 'Hi, I don't want to get to know you or your business, but I would like you to buy things from me. Is that OK?'"
2. "Disruption" and "paradigm."
These two are like the startup world's Bobbsey Twins: completely different, each with their own adventures, but often finding themselves together at last. Notes Ray candidly: "It goes a little something like this: Company X will completely disrupt the industry and totally shift the current paradigm."
What to say instead?
"How about just telling us how you're 'different,' and what real-world problem you are trying to solve," says Ray. "Using jargon is often a cover up for fluff and truly smart folks will see straight through it."
3. "Data-driven insights."
As opposed to the EWAG (educated wild-ass guess), what this really means is using the data a marketer collects to understand something about a customer.
"In my opinion, there's no reason to track data that's not going to benefit the customer relationship," remarks Jones. "We have a tendency to want to track every detail and create a dashboard that displays that information, report the stats in meetings, etc. But it's our responsibility to take a step back and question the utility of it all."
In other words, we could think of this as "information that will enable us to make better decisions around the customer." While "data-driven insights" sure sounds super smart, it doesn't mean anything short of application.
4. We are the "this" for "that."
"How many times have we heard a company say, 'We are the Uber for X' or 'We are the Facebook for Y'?" asks Ghermezian. I completely understand wanting to give context for your audience (particularly investors) as to what you're pitching or selling, but this phrase is so played out."
Instead, Ghermezian challenges companies to take a straight-forward approach: "Just tell us what problem you are solving, how you will bring value to those you are serving, and how you're different from everyone else out there. End of story."
5. "Big data."
If I had a dollar for every time someone said these words to me in a meeting; I read them in an article, blog post, or tweet; or was asked to speak on a panel concerning its existence, I would have purchased a home or two on Necker Island. Possibly three.
So what is it about "big data" that has every marketer, tech analyst, engineer, and investor throwing it around like a football on Sunday afternoon?
Well, for starters, it basically refers to every piece of data imaginable that could be mined for potential information. In essence, it's a simple term that can mean lots of different things. Kind of like the word "love." It feels so good to say, but who the hell knows what one actually means when they say it without ample understanding of the situation?
I'm not sure there is a good alternative to "big data" just yet, but rest assured it's reaching a point where the phrase itself has little meaning without some sort of thoughtful framework.
6. Rethinking the use of jargon.
Next time you're tempted to use jargon, ask yourself these questions:
Does the person on the receiving end have a high probability of knowing what I'm talking about when I say this?
Am I overcompensating because I am insecure about what I'm saying or I want to sound smarter than I actually am?
What could I say that may convey my message in a more universally understandable way?
"If you want to look like an idiot to sales or a business unit, jargon bingo is a great game to play," adds Jones. "It's not helpful and you risk ruining the bond of trust that has to exist between you and the business or the customer."
Remember, people don't like feeling like statistics or objects, or made to feel stupid. In the end, jargon often has the opposite effect intended and is worth thinking through before communicating with colleagues, partners, customers--and pretty much every human on the planet.