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Businesses warned of the dangers of jargon

Friday, 17 December 2010 | By Michelle Hammond

The Plain English Foundation is urging businesses to avoid commonly used jargon, after revealing the worst phrases of 2010.


The foundation uses internet searches to identify new jargon, and old jargon which is being revived, announcing “thought showers”, “repurposing” and “cascade” as the emerging jargon of 2010.


“Thought showers” replaces the term “brainstorm”, “cascade” is another word for “communicate”, and “repurposing” is code for “recycling”.


The foundation also reveals “strategic staircase” has replaced the phrase “forward plan”. But it was the term “moving forward”, used constantly by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, which topped the list.


The foundation’s executive director Neil James says businesses should avoid this phrase because it lacks specificity.


“If ‘moving forward’ truly captures the spirit of the nation, we should all be very worried. It hints vaguely at progress without committing to anything, so politicians can sound positive without being held to account for breaking a promise,” James says.


Other commonly used jargon in 2010 included “KPIs”, “repurposing”, “strategic”, “staircase” and “granularity”, which is a replacement for “drill down”.


According to the foundation, the term “unpack” also gained currency in business speech. For example, a manager might say he is “unpacking a new strategy”, which means he’s explaining it.


James says businesses often resort to jargon because they “like having fancy terms for things – it makes them sound more impressive”.


“It’s a very tempting thing to try and win customers by sounding impressive but there’s evidence to suggest it doesn’t work,” he says.


“There’s a clear relationship between using jargon and financial performance. Businesses often dress something up as a way of covering something up.”


James predicts “strategic staircase”, “granularity” and “cascade” will continue to be popular jargon terms in 2011, in addition to “flexiblise”.


“They’re the ones to watch for and stamp out at every opportunity,” he says.


Despite the findings, James believes businesses are starting to use less jargon because it fails to inform their customers.


“More organisations are beginning to understand that communicating clearly is more beneficial than trying to sound impressive by using jargon,” he says.


James says there is increasingly less jargon in documents but it is still prevalent in face-to-face communication such as boardroom meetings.


“My rule of thumb is that when you start hearing jargon, you have to start questioning what’s being said because it could be an attempt to cover something up,” he says.