When a company who make folding aluminium doors rebrand themselves as “suppliers of entrance solutions” it may seem the tide of jargon has finally become unstoppable.
Us connoisseurs of guff used to amuse ourselves with the Random Corporate Bullshit Generator. A mouse click would churn out phrases like “integrating frictionless demand metrics,” “redefining dynamic platform convergence” and “strategizing holistic content ecosystems.” Laughter was always tempered by the knowledge that such gibberish was actually plentiful in annual reports, corporate websites, brand manifestos and agency pitches.
At some point a weirdly stilted language became standard in business communication. Endless recycling of the same sterile words – stakeholders, deliverables, enablers, synergy, leverage, integration, best-in-class, frameworks, market-leading, empower, onboarding – has drained away meaning. A fog of abstraction has seeped into all walks of commercial and public sector life but the marketing communications industry is especially culpable. This typical formulation appeared not long ago on the website of a global media agency:
We enable and facilitate best-in-class strategic thinking and implementation, leveraging our unrivalled communications capabilities to create seamless and engaging consumer experiences.
Virtually every word has been devalued by chronic overuse. And, aside from its ugliness, it serves no useful purpose because it sounds exactly like what every agency always says. It’s a conspiracy of meaninglessness.
Why do we do this? Why is it a problem? And what can we do about it?
Firstly, I think jargon abounds for straightforward reasons:
We like to fit in. When people see their peers and bosses produce guff it becomes normalised. Why risk confusion or disapproval by straying outside the usual comforting clichés and buzzwords? Jargon becomes self-perpetuating, a form of herd behaviour.
Jargon looks grown-up. Jargon comes to seem like ‘proper’ business language purely because it is so familiar. Plain everyday words become simplistic and somehow unprofessional in comparison.
Plain English is hard work. We all know it’s much tougher to write short than long.
To understand why it is a problem, consult George Orwell. His 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language” explored how use of language shapes thought. If we cannot express concepts and ideas in concrete comprehensible terms then we limit our ability to think properly. Understanding and solving a problem is impossible if we cannot diagnose it in ordinary words.
This fuzziness has contributed to the media and adtech sector’s problems with transparency. The often-impenetrable language used in fields like digital trading has contributed to the erosion of client trust. Studies like ISBA’s 2020 investigation into the programmatic supply chain illustrate how opaque and needlessly complex terminology has intensified client anxieties. Reverting to a clear common language can help rebuild waning trust.
What can be done? There is no single solution because it is a collective responsibility: be vigilant, call out BS when you see or hear it and try to stick to plain English whenever you can. If you work in an agency, your clients will thank you for it – just make sure you challenge them to write their briefs as clearly.
Role models can be found. Dave Trott remains a master of writing about communication with beautiful clarity and directness. For an expert tech commentator who brilliantly translates complex issues into everyday parlance, look up Benedict Evans.
As communication professionals, overcoming jargon addiction is an essential shared endeavour. Otherwise, we’ll all be heading for the entrance solution.
Ian Redman is Interim Executive Director at John Ayling & Associates.
About JAA: John Ayling & Associates is the original media independent planning and buying company for businesses that understand that first class media thinking delivers business growth.