Why we do it and what to do instead
People talk weird at work.
I know I do – or at least, I used to. I worked for more than a decade in insights and analytics, and in that time, I presented a lot of findings to a lot of different stakeholders. In doing so, I noticed something weird: I could be having lunch with a stakeholder, and we’d be having a perfectly normal conversation, but the second as you put me in front of a PowerPoint, I switched to Corporate Voice.
I slipped into this super self-aware cadence and a spoke with a completely different tone. I’d use all these big, businessy words and try to pepper in random technical terms and scientific citations. It was jarring, because it was so different from who I actually am.
It was anything but authentic.
I didn’t do it on purpose. I knew I was supposed to be authentic. We all know that we’re supposed to be authentic at work – we have LinkedIn and Instagram feeds full of inspirational messages telling us to do so.
But it’s easier artfully arranged on a stock photo of a driftwood sign than done.
First of all, why do we adopt this corporate persona? Why do we talk businessy in the first place?
Because we want to sound smart.
Right? That’s what it is. We’re at work; work is a competitive environment; we want to succeed; and intelligence is valued. It’s pretty logical.
When we’re trying to sound smart at work, it manifests itself in a pretty noticeable way: The main culprit when we’re talking about sounding businessy is jargon.
Jargon is defined as a specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders. Depending on your role and your company, you probably encounter a couple of concentric circles of jargon: business jargon and technical jargon.
Business jargon, first of all, is buzzwords. It’s managerspeak, it’s corporatese, it’s what people make fun of consultants for sounding like. It’s words like backburner, shepherd, circle back, and pragmatic. It’s all those words and phrases that you’d never use over beer with a friend but spout willy-nilly over breakroom coffee.
Now, don’t get me wrong - I love business jargon. I collect it. I do a Jargon of the Day series on Instagram and my website, and I’ve found that it can be really creative and concrete and full of metaphor. A lot of what we talk about at work is abstract and grey, and jargon can add a pop of color to an otherwise boring business topic.
But… it can get super annoying if you use it every single sentence.
So why do people use it so much?
One of the main reasons is mimicry. Work is a social environment, and we want to fit in. If everyone else is using jargon, especially people above you in the organization, you’re going to use it, too.
Mimicry is rational, from an evolutionary perspective. The people that you’re mimicking in the Team Leads meeting are, by definition, not fired… so doing what they do is probably a fairly good survival strategy in the company.
But it’s not the ONLY survival strategy.
The other type of jargon is technical jargon. This one is less focused on metaphors and more focused on specific words or terms that are specific to the domain. It’s words like expected value or Markov chain or Poisson arrival patterns – the big, mathy, vague bell-ringing terms that [we think] add street cred.
Now, technical jargon has its place, too. Within the domain, with people who share the same context, it can be a really dense and thus efficient way to communicate. An ER doc can say “stat” to his colleagues, who will automatically unpack it into “Hey, could you do this right away for me, please? It’s pretty urgent. Thank you! I appreciate you ♥.”
Not bad for four little letters.
But context matters – a lot. If one of my old colleagues said “stat” to me, I’d ask if they wanted the median or the standard deviation1.
If you’re talking to people who know what you’re talking about, technical jargon is fine – but if they don’t know your context, or if you’re just trying to sound impressive, it’s not.
This is a trap that I know I used to fall into a lot. I mean, I was the Data Girl. I worked with data. I was supposed to be smart – for sure smarter than Marketing – so when I was in a meeting, or presenting my findings, or otherwise interacting with stakeholders, I constantly tried to signal that I was smart by seasoning my speech with way more than the recommended daily dose of jargon.
But that can backfire. For one thing, studies show that using excessive jargon makes you come across as defensive, manipulative, and less likeable – and that came from HBR, so if they’re telling you to cool it, you know it’s serious.
Forcibly trying to sound smart just isn’t effective. People’s perception of how smart you are is directly related to how well they understand you – and there’s a better chance they’ll understand you if you speak simply.
Especially in the situations we encounter at work, communicating results or recommendations or explaining trends or findings, we need our stakeholders to not only understand, but buy in – and nothing is less persuasive than making someone feel dumb.
People’s perception of how smart you are is directly related to how well they understand you
There are tons of logical reasons to curtail your use of ‘businessy’ language, but logic doesn’t always enter into it. A lot of times, jargon comes from a place of insecurity. We’re using it to fit in and to make other people think we’re smart – those aren’t really blue, left-brain decisions. But no one goes around in real life talking like the narrator of an Advanced Statistical Methods audiobook… that’s just not authentic.
But what is authentic?
First of all, quick clarification: Being authentic does not mean being your whole self at work.
This is a dumb quote. No one is their whole selves at work. No one is their whole self in any single situation.
So what does being authentic mean? It just means not being fake. It means being yourself at work – to whatever degree of wholeness you want to bring – and not limiting yourself to what you think others expect you to be.
To be authentic, you just have to be you… and you are not your job.
You are not your job
You don’t have to be your whole self at work, but you do need to be more than just your job title.
Don’t limit yourself to way you think a Senior Insights & Analytics Manager or a Junior Data Scientist, APAC & EMEA is supposed to communicate.
If you’re funny in real life, be funny at work. If you’re sarcastic, be sarcastic. If you use modifiers like “super” and “totally” way too much because you grew up in a time and place in America where Clueless was the generation-defining cultural beacon, feel free.
Put your own mark on your projects and deliverables. Just because there’s never been a GIF in the Quarterly Results PowerPoint doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Just because no one else uses memes in meetings doesn’t mean you can’t. Just because there aren’t emojis on your dashboards yet doesn’t mean there can’t be.
The times they are a-changin’, and 🚀, 🎉, 💥, and 🍾 are fair game in most corporate cultures that I’ve experienced.
Give it a try – no matter where you work, you probably won’t get fired immediately for decorating the Weekly Status Update email with muscle arms and unicorns. And even if you do get in trouble, wouldn’t that be the best Corrective Action Plan ever? Employee commits to reducing use of sparkle hearts within six months.
Obviously, you need to decide what’s appropriate for you; that’s – surprise – part of being authentic. Adding gratuitous memes to your memos just because that’s what everyone else does is just as bad as saying “syndicate” when you just mean “tell someone about”. There’s a spectrum, and you decide where along it to lie.
Communicate authentically and on your own terms, and people will realize that you’re smart without you having to constantly remind them. You can for sure throw in some buzzwords every once in a while, and talk about p-values and bimodal distributions, but you can also use emojis and GIFS and show some actual personality.
You don’t have to be your whole self to work, but you need to be yourself. And you can be as businessy – or not – as you want to be.
1 Not the average. The average is never the best descriptive statistic to use. Ever. ↩
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