How Can ‘Good Jargon’ Be Good For Business?
How you communicate is vitally important, says Susie Dent, a language expert and consultant, who will be speaking at next month’s Adobe Summit EMEA. If employees are proficient with the word, the company will have the edge.
Susie Dent is a rarity among language experts, combining her skills with a high-profile TV career.
In her role as custodian of Dictionary Corner on the popular U.K. TV game show Countdown , she’s the authority on the meaning, usage, and history of words. Off-screen, she’s an advocate of the role that the precise use of language plays in clear, effective communication, advising companies including AXA, The Gateway Alliance, King (makers of Candy Crush Saga), and MAG Interactive. She’s also a spokeswoman for the Oxford English Dictionary. Her new book, about the way different groups of people use language, is due out in the autumn.
Dent is speaking at Adobe Summit EMEA 2016. She told CMO.com recently what she’s going to talk about in her session “Words That Work.” (click here to register) (Adobe is CMO.com’s parent company).
Dent: I want to discuss why language matters. In business, the way you communicate has never been more important. Statistics prove that vocabulary both sharpens the way you communicate and opens your mind to new ideas. Most importantly, it gets you results. Numerous studies show that a person’s vocabulary level is the best single predictor of success at work. And so it follows that a company whose employees are proficient and creative with language is going to have the edge.
Language is often a low priority in business. The irony is that when companies do focus, they can end up trying too hard, producing the worst kind of jargon, or botching the message completely. Good language should be simple, direct, and relaxed—above all, it’s not something to be afraid of.
Actually, jargon is going to be an important feature in my session, because I want to flip the assumption that all jargon is terrible. In fact, there’s some very striking, very clever, and highly creative jargon out there. Not only that, it’s expedient: jargon can operate as really useful and quick shorthand amongst people in the know, and it’s also an important marker of group identity. All of that can be incredibly helpful. I think the two words “good jargon” will be a bit of a surprise to some.
Jargon itself actually goes back to a very old word, meaning the twittering of birds, so it’s always been something that was mostly unintelligible to other people. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Twittering is essential to birds, and that’s really how I see jargon. It’s not always comprehensible to others—in fact, it’s designed not to be—but it can be highly useful. Until, that is, it starts to lose its meaning and becomes clichéd.
CMO.com: So precision is important, but how do you know when you’ve gone too far? How do you know when you’re excluding people?
Dent: Context is all. If you’ve got your public face on, then you have to speak in the public vernacular or you will inevitably lose your audience. Take this much-mocked example from an education authority: “A multi-agency project catering for holistic diversionary provision to young people for positive action linked to the community safety strategy and the pupil referral unit.” They’re actually talking about go-karting lessons.
That’s an extreme example, but while it should be fairly straightforward not to transfer jargon into your public language, not everybody manages it.
Equally, you can go in a completely opposite direction and think that you’re getting down with the kids when actually you’re alienating them (or making them laugh). Take the infamous Pot Noodle ad: “The slag of snacks.” It was wrong on every level, and rightly got a lot of flak.
At the other end are companies that decide to take risks and play language in ways that may be subversive, but that work. I’m thinking here of Apple with “Think Different,” or O2 with “Be More Dog.” Both were clever and both, linguistically speaking, broke the rules—and that was exactly what makes them stick in the mind. When McDonald’s used “I’m lovin’ it,” it propelled the “I’m loving/hating/etc” formula into popular currency. So you can have a profound effect on language if you do it right.
In any general discussion about language, you’ll always hear that the golden age is in the past, or that text-speak is dumbing down English. Yet if you look back over the history of English, there’s never been a time where people thought: “This is English, and it’s perfect.” We’ve always worried about our language going to the dogs. Shakespeare was roundly criticised for what were perceived to be abuses of language. Keats, likewise, would turn nouns into verbs, and people were in uproar about it at the time, much as they are today. Many of the grammatical errors that we love pinpointing today have actually been around for 300, 400, even 500 years. Even “OMG,” for example, was kicking around in 1917.
CMO.com: So people need to listen more to what they’re saying, and be more aware of who they’re saying it to?
Dent: Yes, audience is everything. But I also mentioned the importance of “relaxed” language at the beginning. We have to be aware of what we’re saying, but at the same time avoid overthinking it. A lot of the rules that we give schoolkids, or ourselves, are either no longer applicable, or were never actually based in good sense in the first place. People have been starting sentences with prepositions happily for absolutely years. A lot of criticisms of current grammar are based on old, outdated, often Latinate rules that make no sense in modern days. We don’t need to avoid natural, emotional language or opt instead for one that’s bland and homogeneous. There’s a wealth of colour at our fingertips that we’re almost too scared to dip into.
And that would be my key recommendation. Make language a priority, but don’t be afraid of it. Use it, play with it, and above all, enjoy it.
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