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Sep 24 2009   11:12AM GMT

For Effective Communication with Diverse Business Groups, Drop the Jargon

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

Today’s guest post is by Robert Malmrose.

Jargon can be good. It has its place. The online dictionary, Dictionary.com, defines jargon as “1. the language, esp. the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or group…”[1]

Jargon is a great method for two equally qualified professionals in the same business group to communicate ideas quickly. They both already agree on the definition of the underlying acronym or “term of art” and can rapidly exchange ideas as if fluently speaking a foreign language.

But now Bill, your tech savvy architect in the Security Group, and Tim, your hands-on “go to” guy in the Networking Group, are explaining to Sally, the most tech-savvy employee on the compliance team, and George, the guy in marketing who wanted his application “secured” before rollout, that Bill and Tim will need 2 more months and a budget amendment to create a “DLP” methodology to co-exist with their “DRM” implementation to be properly monitored by the “SEM” system when deployed.

Sally and George will understand the delay and cost overrun, won’t they? Well… probably not.

In fact, most non-IT people would have little idea what the acronyms, “DLP”, “DRM, and “SEM” actually meant, even though Bill and Tim were sincerely trying to explain the situation to Sally and George.

Jargon has a dark side. The second definition from Dictionary.com defines jargon as “2. unintelligible or meaningless talk or writing; gibberish.”

Too often in business meetings and in writing, IT professionals fail to connect with the other people in their company because of jargon. Even when we have the best intentions, we’re all guilty of this behavior to some degree. Holding advanced knowledge in a profession, such as IT, necessarily requires jargon for efficient day-to-day business activities among similarly trained teammates.

However, when we unconsciously slip jargon into discussions with other business groups or consciously use jargon to impress meeting attendees with the depth of our qualifications, jargon derails the other person’s train of thought and undermines the effectiveness of our presentations.

In the above hypothetical example, Bill, Tim, Sally, and George, are like characters in the tale of the four blind men who chance upon an elephant for the first time. As the story goes, the first man touches the leg and thinks that an elephant is like the trunk of a tree. The second touches the side of the elephant and thinks it’s like a large wall. The third grabs the trunk and says it’s like a snake, while the fourth touches the tail and thinks it’s like a rope.

Similarly, jargon prevents IT professionals from defining and communicating both business challenges and solutions to other business divisions. The result is lost time and energy and a risk that a project never receives proper consideration by all necessary parties. Plus, the detrimental effect of jargon increases as the number of participants in the discussion increases.

Jargon introduces additional communication missteps. When an IT professional uses jargon, people may interrupt a speaker to ask what a piece of jargon means. This breaks the rhythm of the presentation and indicates that the speaker is not being effective.

Conversely, some people will not interrupt when they hear an unknown term, either because they feel that interrupting the speaker is inappropriate at that particular moment or because they do not want to appear unintelligent in front of the group. However, you have lost communicative effectiveness because these people will no longer follow your delivery in its entirety and may even have lost interest in your topic completely.

Most business people who use jargon are overestimating the ability of the audience to remember new technical terms being heard for the first time. Even worse, some people have little awareness or concern that their jargon is preventing them from delivering their message to their audience. They are limiting their own communication abilities for no apparent reason.

Finally, miscommunication through jargon does not only occur between IT staff and the rest of the company. In larger organizations with large IT groups, jargon threatens to reduce communication effectiveness between IT groups with different skill sets and training. For example, an application developer first hearing the terms used by an information security architect, such as “defense in depth” and “least privilege”, may make assumptions about the meaning of these terms that are not correct.

Here are some suggestions to try to make your next memo, business meeting, or presentation a “jargon free” zone when communicating with business people who are unfamiliar with the technical aspects of your career but who are necessary for you to persuade or inform:

· AVOID USING ACRONYMS OR “TERMS OF ART” – Because you probably use acronyms routinely as professional short-hand with your closest team members, you have a tendency to use them unconsciously in meetings, presentations, and memos when speaking with non-team members.

Even if your audience or readers have seen the acronyms in other contexts, they may not even be thinking about them in the same way that you meant. For example, if you casually say “DR” in a meeting, your network engineer assumes you meant “Disaster Recovery”, while the compliance officer may be wondering why you just said “Decision Review”, and the marketing guy is thinking “Daily Report”.

Use the full term to describe a concept instead of an acronym unless the acronym has grown in usage at the company to the point that its meaning is without question. For example, use the terms, “Intrusion Detection System” and “Intrusion Prevention System”, instead of substituting the acronyms, “IDS” and “IPS”.

Do not use “terms of art”, such as “WAN”,”LAN”, or “SAN”, when your audience already has business equivalents that they understand. Instead of saying, “Do you need data stored locally or securely on the SAN?”, you could say, “Do the customer service representatives have any business reason to keep customer data stored at their desks or can we move the customer records to a location that allows us to provide you and your customers better security management?” The business user will probably think differently about the business risk when described in the second example.

· NEVER INTRODUCE MORE THAN TWO NEW ACRONYMS AT ONCE – If you must use acronyms, never use more than two new acronyms with a group or audience when the concepts are new to some members of the audience or discussion.

Even if you define your acronyms before using them, if you use more than two new acronyms in the same meeting, presentation or memo, then you are risking that the audience will not retain their meaning throughout the presentation.

If you need convincing, try this test.

Define three new 2 or 3 letter acronyms for a colleague, in a memo, on slides or orally during a discussion. (Do not tell him or her that you are testing retention.) If you used a memo or a slide, remove it from your colleague’s view. Talk about the topic for about 5 minutes while using the acronyms in slides or in your discussion. Now ask your colleague what the acronyms mean. Most people cannot accurately define two of the acronyms, let alone three of them.

· STOP AND ASK FOR FEEDBACK – If you are in a business meeting or presentation and begin to see obvious signs of confusion in the faces of the audience, take a moment to ask your audience if they have any questions about the terminology that you are using. Be sincere in your approach.

Ask in a way that sends the message that you want them to understand the importance of your message and not that they are dumb for failing to understand. Do not say, “Who doesn’t understand what’s shown on these slides?” but say, “Is there something up to this point that I haven’t made clear enough that I can clarify?”

If you have the time to speak with some presentation attendees informally before a presentation to a large group or before a business meeting, you can quickly gauge the technical aptitude of your audience as well as learn some of their jargon.

If you receive a question that is not related to terminology but some other topic, thank the person for their question and tell them that you will be happy to answer the question at the end of the presentation if the remaining material does not provide a satisfactory answer.

If the person asking the question is too senior or influential in the meeting or presentation for you to defer their question until later, then you will probably have to answer it immediately. Answer the question, ask if anyone else needs clarification with your terminology, and then move forward with the balance of your content.

· USE THEIR JARGON – If you understand your audience well enough, discuss the business problem and solution using their jargon instead of your own.

Studies have shown that people have increased brain activity and respond with greater awareness when hearing their own name versus anyone else’s name. By analogy, a business person is more likely to be engaged in a conversation when you are using their jargon to describe a problem rather than your own.

For example, instead of saying, “We prefer that the users authenticate to the device using two-factor authentication for increased security”, you might say, “We prefer that the retail sales staff are issued a smartcard that they will swipe at POS before entering a password in order to increase the protection of the consumer data generated during each sales transaction.”

If you can phrase business challenge and solution in terms understood by the other business groups, then you have a vastly greater likelihood that your business goals are in alignment with the other groups attending your meeting, presentation or written proposal.

This type of discussion technique takes practice and a concentrated effort during conversation or writing, but can pay huge dividends in leveraging your communication abilities throughout the company.

In conclusion, taking the time to learn “talk the talk” of other business departments will feel awkward until you spend a little time in finding common ground to define business processes and goals across diverse business groups. Once you have set aside your jargon, people will think of you as the person bringing the “solution” to the rest of the group.


[1] http://dictionary.reference.com/

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