Ask the average business executive or key government official precisely what their company or department does and their brains fall out of their head and jargon springs to their lips. Frothy meaningless terms might be fine when you fall in love or during strong economic growth but they impede growth during economic downturns.

And what we are dealing with at present is not just an economic downturn it is a developing financial catastrophe — the worst is yet to come. Clear heads, words with meaning and purposeful action is imperative.

Jargon murders innovation. It cripples business meetings and blocks communication. There are three primary reasons why jargon is used, the first is to show that you are part of a group eg IT specialists, doctors or engineers. Or it is used to display that you’ve been reading the latest business journals or books and have gone on expensive business school courses where the air is often thick with jargon and sheep too cowed to bleat — “whaa-t does thaa-t mean?”

Jargon is always exclusionary, it communicates with members of the in-group and keeps out those not similarly qualified. But most of all, jargon or ra-ra-ra company visioning terms, which are also often monuments to meaningless phraseology, are used when people don’t really understand a subject. They fill their language with jargon in an attempt to appear important or clever and rely on the fact that most won’t ask: what do you mean?

Ask them, they won’t be able to tell you in simple English. And if they can’t explain what they do in simple English, it means they are failing to deliver because they are not entirely certain what is expected of them.

Government speech writers are notorious for using jargon or words that they don’t understand. The Weekender recently used some examples from a recent speech by Angie Motshekga, minister of basic education. The fact that the minister did not realise that her speech was meaningless makes one wonder what sort of delivery we can anticipate from her new department. These are just two examples: “These teachers we want in class on time teaching are also reported to be feeling overwhelmed by neverending external demands on their work and making them resentful and being distracted from their work.”

Talking of accountability she read: “The accountability system is weak because of a pervasive culture of resistance to strong measures of accountability within schools and not only teachers should be singled out for attention of failing schools, the accountability net stretches wider than individual teachers.”

Hopefully it extends to ministers with education portfolios who wouldn’t recognise grammar if it hit them.

Jargon and clichés prevent us thinking in new and original ways. It shows a tired, jaded or simply uninspiring individual. Avoid it. Some common examples include:

– Customer service industry
– End objective
– Time heals
– Very strategic activities
– People on the ground
– Empowerment/empowered
– Previously disadvantaged
– Both parties
– The grassroots

In media training I submitted a simple six-question survey to executives of a major company. The one question was “tell me what the best part of your job is”, the answer from one was: “Being in a space where the company vision is your guidance to innovate within our current market and potential new markets. Your boundary is only the vision which allows you think out of the box and push the envelope, take a rough idea and create a potential product/solution that will not only impact the clients but too those they serve and the sector they are within.”

Please tell me what that means. When I asked the group to clarify it (without identifying the author) — nobody could explain it, not even the author.

Another client ,who runs a brilliant technology group, had as the group’s purpose under the name of the company “technology driven solutions”. What do you mean by that, I asked? It’s a question that makes any IT person want to sit on the ground and weep because they can’t explain it. If you google the term there are companies offering a zillion different services that all refer to them as “technology driven solutions”. The question that needs to be asked over and over in a company, until they and their team find the answer is: “what do you do?” or “what do you hope to achieve?”

Let’s look at some companies who have successfully done that: Google says it aims to increase knowledge in the world and so Google teams persistently look for ways in which to do precisely that. Avis has long had a brand mantra that says “we are second best” to Hertz in the US “but we try harder”. By using simple terminology they provide a promise to consumers and a driver for staff — consistently better customer service which in hard times can give competitive advantage.

I advise clients when coming up with a new strategy to consider these five simple words that every journalist is taught to use in the first two sentences of a news story: who, what, where, why, how, when. Use it to describe your work, your goals — simplify, simplify, the more you do it the closer you get to the truth of what you do and hope to achieve.

In the end it is consumer trust and a respected brand promise that is understood by all staff that will spur a company forward in these economic times.

A few more tips: if you find yourself being tempted to say “tend to”, “always”, “even”, “most” about a group know that your use of language is cautioning you, you are about to make a sweeping generalisation that is going to insult someone. Don’t. Examples of what you should avoid:

• Even my mom can do this
• Women even drive trains nowadays
• Men always
• You know, some whites
• Kids are ungrateful
• Things were better (in the old days, under apartheid, before women worked, when men were still in charge)
• Teenagers nowadays
• The media always get it wrong
• The media always sensationalise
• Blondes always

This is a country with 11 official languages, we live in a globalised world with a plethora of languages and cultural traits that ensure we often speak past each other … to communicate you need to simplify.


  • Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which she has worked have also won awards. She has worked as a broadcast journalist and radio-station manager. Smith's areas of expertise are politics, economics, women's and children's issues and HIV. She lives and works in Cambridge, USA.


Charlene Smith

Charlene Smith is a multi-award-winning journalist, author and media consultant. She has had 14 books published, one of which was shortlisted for an Alan Paton award. Television documentaries for which...

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