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Posted: October 29, 2013

Best of CoBiz: Six good reasons to shun “corporate speak”

Eliminate jargon from interviews in all instances - except three

John Heckers

“We need to seamlessly engage 24/7 initiatives through best-of-breed actionable, client-facing items and proactively create 24/365 niche markets through backward-compatible, future-proof enterprise-wide e-services without turnkey systems.”

Does the above sentence sound like something that you’ve heard in a meeting recently? Actually, it comes from an on-line random corporate jargon generator which simply puts together the silliest things that are said within corporations and makes them into sentences that could be spoken by any CEO.

In these difficult times, as people are changing industries frequently, it is absolutely essential to eliminate jargon, circumlocutions and other corporate double-speak from your interviewing vocabulary.

One good exercise is to explain, as if to a second grader, what you do for a living. Don’t use any jargon, corporate “buzzwords” or other words that a second grader would not understand. If you cannot do this, you truly do not know what you do for a living.

It is continually amazing to me and my colleagues how many of our executive clients cannot or will not do this simple exercise. Jargon is a killer of executive interviews. Here’s why:

  • Jargon doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning from company to company. If the “corporate speak” at one firm is different from that at another, you may be saying something totally inappropriate or unintelligible in your interview. I often think of when I play with my daughter’s cat and “meow” at it. Sometimes the cat will give me a profoundly dirty look. Since I don’t actually speak “cat,” I probably just insulted its intelligence or fur coat or something. Ditto with “corporate speak.” I’ve seen too many executives get in real interview trouble from using jargon.
  • Likewise, jargon does not necessarily retain the same meaning from industry to industry. Even within industries, different branches of the same industry may use jargon and even technical definitions differently. Misusing jargon is very easy to do when switching industries.
  • \Jargon is way to show that you’re “in the club” of the corporation for which you’re working. Only you’re not anymore. You’re trying to get into a different “club,” now. But you can’t use their jargon until you’ve been admitted to the club. If you try they may turn on you and tear you to shreds. Such is human nature.
  • Jargon often covers ignorance. As the above jargon that sounds very managerial shows, even a complete idiot (a computer has no intelligence) can generate jargon. Only someone who truly knows his or her stuff can explain complex material in simple language. Employers have caught on to this, and many are downgrading their evaluations of those who speak jargon through the interview.
  • Even something that isn’t technically jargon can be a shield against lack of understanding of what a job really does. For example, many people say they want to do “operations.” “Operations” has many meanings within the corporate world, yet some people cannot describe what they want to do without using the word “operations.” If you can’t describe what it is without using the word, you don’t know what it is.
  • Further, don’t use pet corporate names for positions. The one that leaps to mind was common at Sun Microsystems, which insisted on calling people “Sun Evangelists.” Use common titles like “salespeople,” “public relations,” and so on. Companies shouldn’t have “evangelists.”

“Corporate speak” is one way that the “insiders” of a corporation denote who is “in” and who is “out.” These kinds of silly and immature games should be left in middle school, because they are having a very negative effect on corporations. Think hard if you really want to work for a corporation where such absurd attitudes and practices exist.

When to use jargon

Having said this, there are times to use jargon and corporate buzzwords.

  • You are in the same industry, and the industry is jargon-heavy, such as government, military, technical or medical. Still use it carefully, but you must use enough to show that you are one of the “in” crowd. Failure to show appropriate and effective jargon use could doom you.
  • Caveat:  Use only industry jargon, not the buzzwords or special words from your last corporation. These will be specific to your past company and will raise a red flag, as the words may not mean the same thing.
  • You are interviewing with a technical manager who is jargon-heavy. If someone in the company starts to heavily use industry jargon, play along.

While jargon within corporations is still a blight on corporate America, it is a reality. Keep it to a minimum, but know when the use of jargon is unavoidable. Just try not sound like a corporate jargon generator.

John Heckers, MA, CPC, BCPC was an Executive, Relationships, Life and Spiritual Coach in Denver with 30 years of experience  helping people with their lives, relationships and careers.

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