How Business Jargon Hurts Business and What You Can Do about It

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“What do you mean the helpdesk program won’t cover all systems?” my most valuable customer said.

“I thought we were only talking about the main system,” I stammered, confused.

“All systems. All systems,” he repeated. “We covered this on the conference call last week!”

Immediately I knew what had happened. My customer and I had run aground on the rocks of business jargon. He is a great guy, and we have had a ten-plus year relationship. However, he is one of the worst business-jargon offenders I know.

What he said to me was undoubtedly something like, “We need to think value-add here. An extensible program. So that at the end of the day we can provide a 360-degree solution to the customer.”

The message, “Please expand your helpdesk proposal to cover all systems,” was obscured in a fog of non-communication.

Any of these sound familiar?

At the end of the day

On a go-forward basis

Learning as a noun. (Our key “learnings…”)


Manage expectations

Low-hanging fruit

Break down silos

Take a 360-degree view

Think outside the box

Out of pocket

Solutions provider


Tee up

Circle back

30,000-foot view

Value Add

Best practice


Core competency

Take offline

For any of these phrases, there is a more direct way to say what you mean. “Take offline,” translates to, “You and I need to speak privately.” But do all hearers of “take offline” really get that? Worse, I’ve noticed many users of the “take offline” phrase are simply parroting business jargon to bat away an issue they’d rather not deal with at all. (A fun exercise would be to evaluate all of the above for both their real meaning and their misuse.)

As a former English teacher, I am ashamed of how much business-speak creeps into my own talking and writing, no matter how much I strive to resist.

Why is it so hard? Why do we do it? Some key reasons…

Ego—We think it makes us sound smarter.

Fads—At first, a phrase sounds cool, and it’s picked up. Think of how viral “at the end of the day” became.

Lack of thought—It’s hard to search for a word. When pat phrases are sitting right there, you grab for them.

Cowardice—We fear making a direct request or statement, so we cloak it in jargon.

Because of what occurred to me this week, I realize the cost of repetitive, jargon-y, indirect speech is not just the annoyance or irritation it causes to grammarians and linguists. If you are not clear, important things you need to get done don’t.

Years ago, the famed William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well was the bible for up-and-coming writers and editors. Zinsser’s manual is a how-to on eliminating jargon, unnecessary repetition, and tuning words for clarity. I recommend it.

Apple vs. Amazon; Device vs. Content

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The word “content” is used six times in this 448-word article on the Kindle Fire. Out-of-the box content, the article asserts, along with a decent price, is what accounts for the Fire, clunky as it is, being second only to the iPad in tablet sales. Coincidentally, the article also notes that Amazon is second only to Apple as consumers’ favorite brand.

The Apple vs. Amazon question is, essentially, the Device vs. Content question. Apple is the standard bearer of the device. A gadget-maker, Apple’s goal is to get devices into the hands of the consumer. To Apple, content is leverage. Its strategy is to hold content hostage (iTunes) in order to sell devices. As for the printed word, Steve Jobs once famously said–and didn’t seem to be bothered by saying– that people don’t read anymore.

Conversely, the Amazon strategy is all about providing content, with a solid foundation in the book. The company removes the friction for consumers to get and pay for the content they want. It puts cheaper and cheaper devices into their hands to do this. Amazon doesn’t seem to care if their first generation devices are thought of as “clunky” (Kindle version 1 and Fire version 1.) Interestingly, consumers don’t seem to care either. While Apple devices are rightfully lauded for hitting a design pinnacle no one has been able to achieve before, Amazon devices are snapped up by content-hungry consumers, glad to have a “good enough” access point to the content they want. And the voracious consumption of Kindle books contradicts, of course, the aforementioned position on reading.

It will be interesting to see how the contest between these two companies shapes up. As for me, I will be rooting for the content. Because it is content, not devices, that keep culture and civilization alive.

Is Steve Jobs Jesus?

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See my post today on open salon.

In the early days, Steve Jobs came to a company Halloween party dressed as Jesus (NYT, link below). Now, after his death, the media and fans are treating him like a dead messiah.


Technology Truth #5: The Pile of Snow

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It’s an icy day with snow piling up outside. Someone presents you with two choices of task.

You could

(A) Stay inside and sort out the mess in your jewelry box, or

(B) Go outside an shovel the walk.

A right? Who wouldn’t choose A?

Then, five hours later, you’re still sitting cross-legged on the floor, a straight pin in each hand trying to pick apart a Gordian knot containing a broach, three necklaces, and four dangle earrings. The shoveler finished hours ago and is sipping hot chocolate while watching football.

Software Development Rule: The pile of snow is always simpler.

Developers by their very nature avoid tasks that seem boring and laborious. You write programs to do the heavy lifting! So rather than spend an hour doing data entry, a developer will opt to write a program that does it for him. He’ll argue, “The program can be re-used.” But what if it isn’t? I’m amazed by the number of times “re-use” never happens. Furthermore, what if the simple just-write-a-script tasks ends up in a five-hour jewelry box disentanglement? Leadership needs to be on the lookout for when tech folks simply need to shovel that pile of snow.

Management themselves are often attracted to whiz-bang. Who wants to hear about a boring, low-tech approach that saves $3,000? Is that why I have all those cool, tattooed tech guys in the basement talking about things that I don’t understand (but pretend to)? No, I want to year about a $50,000 tech investment that will increase sales 400%! That’s the pitch I listen to! But six months into a tech project now vastly over budget I may look longingly at the shovel.

So, beware. And ask yourself, what unglamorous “pile of snow” tasks and initiatives you and your tech folks avoiding?

Grumpy About the Cost of Digital?

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Lessons Learned from the International Women’s Writing Guild

Right now, my own digital marketing person is trying to get me to focus on a website refresh and to send a monthly email. The whole thing makes me grumpy. Keeping one’s digital marketing house in order takes so much money. And don’t even get me started on how much time composing, proofing, testing and sending one company email takes!

It is enough to get you to ask, “Is it all worth it? What would really happen if I didn’t put in the effort?”

This mini case study provides the unequivocal answer.

We rarely have the opportunity these days to look at virgin soil—the control group of control groups. An entity that has done virtually no digital marketing. But last year, tmg-e*media got the chance. I was introduced to the International Women’s Writing Guild, an organization founded on the principle of empowering women by helping them find their writing voices. Its 84-year-old founder, a true visionary in writerly things, had never ventured far out of the analog world. We redid their website and collaborated on an aggressive email campaign targeted to the IWWG conferences. And along the way, we discovered some key lessons:


1. People are paying attention

When you’re in a small organization with a lightly trafficked site, it’s easy to question how much your site matters. Is anyone paying attention? It turns out they are. Upon the launch of the new IWWG site, word spread among members who had not been actively engaged in the organization for ages. I got emails from women I didn’t even know who said, “Hey! Great site!” It allowed the IWWG to reconnect with its member base.




2. A website is key to setting expectations

Whether it’s access to your bio picture so someone can spot you at a networking event, or getting the word out about how you interact with customers, a site gives you the chance to set key expectations.

For the IWWG, expectations of the IWWG Summer Conference event had become a real pain point. A shift in venue in 2010 produced near pandemonium. After being in one location for over 30 years, members had to re-adjust to a new campus. Where was the dining hall? Why was it such a long walk to the sessions? Where were the classrooms anyway? Member dissatisfaction soared and the new venue was rejected as a site for 2011. Which meant yet another change.

Yale won the IWWG business, but the organization ran the risk of having the same, even worse, problem. The website was used in a common-sense way, but one we often forget. We simply put up campus maps, room descriptions, directions to and from housing to the dining hall. We did this thoroughly. And lo-and-behold, attendees had fewer complaints.


3. Websites are validation.

The previous IWWG website did not speak to the values and prestige of the organization. Therefore, it did not help convert conference-considerers to convert to conference attendees. When people hear about you or your event, the first thing they do is go to the website and check it out. We heard from attendee after attendee that they went to the site and got a good feel for the conference. And then, the conference itself had the same feel. This consistency produces a sense of stability, trust and reliability.

See Before and After above.


4. Digital media works hand in hand with other media.

To promote this year’s summer conference, we had emails, radio ads, the site, meetups and word of mouth. Conference attendees reported it took two or more contacts for them to make a decision to attend. For example, one woman said she received an email and filed it. Then a radio ad prompted her to look it up again. Alas, it was lost and she did not remember the web address. She Googled madly for women’s writing conferences and that’s when our SEO-conscious site redo paid off.


5. Use the web to provide choice

Air conditioning or no air conditioning?–That was the summer question. Only some of the Yale housing provided air conditioning. There was concern about a general uproar. No air conditioning? At a summer conference? So we used the web to set pricing and give attendees choice: The non air conditioned rooms were available, or a person could have air conditioning for a higher price.

Contrary to some extreme initial fears, we got no complaints regarding AC.


So when you get grumpy about the time it takes to do digital marketing, consider the lessons above. You don’t have to accomplish the most bleeding-edge strategy. But covering the bases in a common-sense and consistent way has a big payoff, even for a lightly trafficked site for a small organization.