Is there ever a right time to use jargon?

– Posted by Pippa Griffin

We’ve noticed lots of different things about words and language recently – all pointing towards the same question – is there ever a right time to cut to the short-hand, to switch to the slang, to jump to the jargon?

First, news that the British Library has paid to keep a 500-year old dictionary in the UK (20.03.14). Regarded as the earliest example of an English dictionary, the C15th Catholican Anglicum (I confess, I need a dictionary to look this up!) is thought to have been written in the North of England around 1483.

Described by Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, as “fundamental to the identity and life of our nation,” I couldn’t help but wonder how many of us would understand the words it contains (it was written to help students with their Latin composition,) and how many words within it remain in common parlance? If we were to use the language of this dictionary today, would anyone understand us at all?

Of course, language changes all of the time – as evidenced by the new additions to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in March. This quarter’s new words include: ‘bestie’, ‘scissor-kick’ and ‘chugger’ and other more ‘innovative’, or, should we say, adjectival uses of a Middle English swear word. The new list includes a number of words incorporated into our language from the melting pot of the playground and teenage slang. I’ll be taking note, if only in the vague hope of still being able to understand my 13-year old niece!

But perhaps we are just as guilty in the business world? As consultants who help organisations make change a positive experience for their employees, are we also guilty of throwing our own slang and short-cuts around when we talk about various approaches to engagement such as Larkin & Larkin and ‘Engage for Success’ or if we name-drop change management leaders such as Kotter, Bridges, Burke-Litwin. But while we might use these examples and reference points in good faith in order to help explain why we might recommend this or that approach, or use them to help inspire new ideas for bespoke tools and solutions, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs properly if we bamboozled our clients with jargon they didn’t (or perhaps wouldn’t dare to admit they didn’t) understand.

In a recent meeting with one of our long-standing clients, we were joined by a very well-qualified and experienced Learning and Development professional who had been with the organisation for less than one week. Everyone in the room became very aware of the sheer volume of acronyms and snappy descriptions that such a complex business uses to short-cut what it means. It showed all of us how ‘blind’, how ‘deaf’ we can become when we are immersed day-in, day-out in a certain way of speaking, writing, ‘communicating’.

jargon-cartoon

It’s our job to get under our clients’ skin – to be able to understand and talk to the people we’re working with in their own language. This way, we can become an almost ‘invisible’ force supporting and helping to drive change, rather than be seen as source of external intervention (the oar of the dreaded external consultant!). We have to fully understand what makes a client tick so that we can design the most relevant, most tailored tools and solutions to meet their needs. And of course, where necessary, it sometimes fall to us to perhaps even challenge the way they use language themselves.

We all use jargon, acronyms, short-cuts and a slang of some kind – even in our professional worlds – and there’s no doubt that sometimes they can save us time – in an explanation, in setting down a plan, in expressing quickly what we mean. But, we have to always be mindful of the audience that we’re talking to. We have to always consider the level of understanding we’re trying to build. We have to engage employees in change, in their own language, not turn them off at the first hurdle because everyone is speaking a different dialect.

As a not-so-secret twitcher, I was interested to read this paragraph in Simon Barnes’ wonderful book, ‘Birdwatching With Your Eyes Closed’. In talking about trying to understand the different language (the calls, the songs) of birds, he says:

“To categorise is a basic human instinct. We do so in order to understand the world. We break things down and place them in the right box.”

But he adds this crucial point…

The human mind demands context, not just for the convenience of identification, but in order to understand what the whole thing is about. You are not, in the normal course of events, going to hear a kittiwake in Birmingham or a woodpecker on the rocks at Land’s End.”

And this, for me, is the key. The successful use of language (be it slang, full-sentences or short-cuts) in order to communicate a point has to be about more than just WHO we’re speaking to, but also about the context in which that communication is made: the WHEN, the WHERE, the HOW. It’s about using language in a way that’s appropriate, relevant, that makes it clear what matters, what will help to drive a difference, what will help to make a message understood.

Engaging employees effectively requires us to consider all of these things – enabling the start and continuation of a really important dialogue in which everyone has a voice, where everyone understands and where everyone feels able to join the conversation.