Most of us tailor our language to our audience. We choose different words when talking to our child than when talking to our spouse, our pastor or our boss. We may not even notice that we are doing it. It’s often automatic and unintentional.
At work, knowingly or not, people choose words for specific purposes beyond just conveying an idea. They want to impress, show deference, take credit, look smart, intimidate, dominate or avoid blame. They want to cover up their own incompetence or avoid managerial scrutiny.
Unfortunately, they often employ communications strategies that backfire by distracting from the message and subtext they want to convey and instead placing focus on the language and the speaker. This can make them seem pompous or condescending, caricatures to be mocked rather than professionals to be admired.
Here are a few of the ways people undermine their own credibility.
You verb a noun or adjective by using it as a verb rather than as the original figure of speech. Instead of offering people incentives, you incent them. Instead of giving a gift, you gift them. You upskill yourself instead of learning something new. You workshop ideas, calendar meetings and architect systems.
Verbing is a legitimate tool of the English language, responsible over many centuries for introducing thousands of verbs. It’s a defensible practice — and I have done quite a bit of it in this column (though I have done it in part in the hope that you will begin to see how it can be annoying).
Excessive verbing is annoying. When I hear people do it a lot, I feel as if they are trying to put something over on me, like a con man or a carnival barker. They want to make something mundane seem profound, or something old seem new. They want to portray themselves and their activities as more important and impressive than they really are. I’m less likely to trust someone who verbs than someone who doesn’t.
And it’s just distracting. As Bill Watterson wrote years ago in one of his “Calvin and Hobbes” comics, “Verbing weirds language.”
You jargon your communications by using terms of your trade when speaking to people who are unlikely to fully understand their meaning. Instead of using normal English, you use unknown words or phrases, transforming your ideas into gibberish in the minds of your audience. IT folks have a particularly bad reputation for jargoning our stakeholders to death. We tell them that we will form an agile team, use a mesh network or a NoSQL database, without any explanation.
Jargoning gives the impression that you don’t want your audience to understand you. They will feel that you are trying to hide something or that you do not respect or care enough about them to clarify. You come off as distant and either obnoxious or clueless.
It’s a difficult habit to break. If you’re accustomed to talking to people who understand all of your jargon, it takes practice to even recognize that the terminology you routinely use isn’t widely understood in many areas of the business. But you have to always be conscious of that possibility and alert to the subtle looks of confusion (or annoyance) that might cross the faces of your audience. Most importantly, do not conclude that those who don’t understand your jargon are stupid. They probably have their own jargon that would leave you equally in the dark.
Acronyming is a lot like jargoning but uses abbreviations that your audience is unlikely to know. “Hi. I’m John from the PMO and you’ve been assigned as our project SME. We’ve already decided to use a SaaS model for our IoT product to maximize the ROI.” As with jargon, acronyms appear distancing and disrespectful.
We all know what clichéing is: employing overused phases to convey common ideas. “I know we’re going to be late, but every cloud has a silver lining.” “We’re going to avoid that technology like the plague.” “I’d fit really well into your team because I’m a jack-of-all-trades, people person.”
Clichés may convey the ideas you are trying to communicate, but they also create negative impressions of you. Cliché spouters appear to be inarticulate and imprecise. When someone uses a cliché to explain something to me, I assume that he is using vague generalities because he either doesn’t understand or wants to avoid the specifics of the situation at hand. He seems incompetent or secretive.
So, before you buffoon yourself, think about what you’re about to say. Plain language often will achieve your goals better than these misguided approaches to communication, which send all the wrong messages about you.