The extended stay-at-home and work-from-home policies most businesses are operating under due to the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change some aspects of our working world.
Regardless of market segment, industry vertical or even geographical location, this “new normal” will leave an indelible mark on all of us and all of the working processes in which we engage.
Some of these changes will be driven by necessity, and others will be voluntary and self-imposed. We all want to return to a working world that is safe, secure, stable and productive.
One of the changes I earnestly hope we all might embrace is to forsake the use of what we euphemistically refer to as biztalk or techno-speak. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.
If you are sick of “reaching out” to people who can “think outside of the box” and “unpack the issues” that are clearly in “your wheelhouse,” then you know what I mean.
But, beyond these tired cliché expressions, I’m even more concerned about the phraseology that is developed around the technical or the esoteric vocabulary of complex issue specialization. Those of us in the technology business are guilty of this.
The current COVID-19 public health emergency represents an example of what I’m referring to.
The Language of Pandemic
We are roughly two months into a general awareness of this crisis, and already a highly specialized vocabulary has been disseminated by our leaders and information sources seeking to educate us all. It is only a short amount of time until much of this specialized vocabulary is appropriated, bent and stretched to apply to issues that have nothing to do with epidemics, viruses or the public health.
The problem is, when these terms are appropriated and re-used, no one really understands exactly how the meaning is meant to be understood or limited.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you are in a discussion about addressing a problem with customer defections. The goal of the meeting is to determine why customers are leaving and how the defection rate might be slowed or stopped. During the discussion, someone brightly suggests that the group needs to “flatten the curve” and retard the defection rate.
There it is, a term that statisticians use has been introduced into a discussion regarding customer satisfaction or defections. It’s a nice familiar term that on the surface sounds like it means something.
Unfortunately, unless your customer defection dynamics are accurately reflected via a traditional bell curve that shows frequency over time with a beginning, middle and end, the term is open to misinterpretation.
Does this mean the defection rate will decline without intervention? Is the user suggesting that Sales should distance itself from the customer base? How much of the related language comes with the expression into the unrelated subject? It’s not that the language is totally wrong, it’s a matter of not being totally correct.
Another example could be found in the discussion of negative publicity. I can almost hear well-meaning individuals recommending a “locking down” of certain information outlets, “isolating” or “quarantining” specific people, data or content related to the image problem at hand.
Would it not be more accurate to simply advise designating an individual or department as the official outlet for corporate communications?
Using Buzzwords is Nothing New
There are many other examples I’m sure. This is not a new problem; it is an old problem that is re-enacted every time we encounter a major complex event. On a smaller scale, we do this within specialized industries.
We develop our own vocabulary that might mean something specific to a technical person or to someone with acquired knowledge. But others will appropriate the expression, use it and assume that it more or less is being used accurately.
For instance, Marketing and Sales texts are littered with terminology appropriated from the military and the conduct of war. We conduct campaigns; we use email for air cover; we engage with the customer; we decimate the competition; and we dominate the market.
This is a bad habit that we in business need to break.
Let’s start using plain English, French, German, Chinese or whatever language our audience is familiar with, and leave the misuse of esoteric, questionable vocabulary behind.
New Communication Habits Aren’t Hard to Start
Consider your personal communication and also the content you produce for consumption by your market audience.
Proofread Published Materials
All published material must be proofed. My proofer, editor and other colleagues have saved me too many times for me to count. Make sure your content standards include filtering rules to prevent this terminology from creeping into your messaging and outbound content.
If you don’t have formal proofing, start doing it.
Select a stylistic standard, publish it internally and provide style manuals to those who need them. You don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you are not going to change completely overnight. But resolve to start.
Begin by rewarding those who are able to convey complex issues using standard language that does not include cliché or trite expressions intended to mask an inadequate understanding of the issue being discussed.
Encourage internal meeting communication to call out use of these terms during presentations and discussions. This doesn’t have to be mean spirited, and it certainly can be more lighthearted in manner. Develop a sense of humor. We all do this, and we all need help to stop doing this.
Self-proof your own communications. Most of the time we use these terms because we are too lazy to express a complex point effectively and economically from a language point of view. It only takes a few minutes to pare down an awkward or wordy paragraph, polish it and finally publish a succinct and effective communication.
Precise Language Enlightens
Language is best used with precision and economy. It should serve to enlighten and not to obscure.