PR Insight 7 minute read
The problem with jargon is that it can be catching. You may hate a term, but before you know it you hear yourself saying “moving forward”, for example. Peter Rogers, senior account manager at PR firm Weber Shandwick, says he is not completely sure why PR is a breeding ground for jargon, but thinks it may be because PROs work with words every day and get tired of the same old copy. “Maybe creating new words and phrases is the result of our creativity. Or it could be that we adopt business jargon to look incredibly intelligent. Whatever the reason, there are some fairly painful examples that exist in the PR world.”
Even supposedly good communicators can be guilty of using the worst terms in the worst situations. Libby Wyman, consultant at agency Forster Communications, gives an example: “Last week the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, a man who arguably should be a champion of creating clear, concise copy, began an internal memo firing people with the words ‘I’m going to give it to you straight’ followed by: ‘streamlined roadmap’, ‘purpose-built team’, ‘reinvest our most impactful priorities’ and finally the dreaded ‘reach out to me directly’. Whilst an obviously upsetting memo announcing that many employees will lose their jobs, it goes to show that when it really counts, even the content pros just can’t help themselves.
“At Forster, I’m pleased to say our corporate jargon is not quite as bad as Dorsey’s, but I list some of our top jargon sins in the list below.”
Words and phrases that should be banned
Touch base, ducks in a row, moving forward and strategic. “Let’s touch base on that later makes me uncomfortable, for a rather immature reason. Also, ‘we need to get our ducks in a row‘ – using animal metaphors doesn’t really scream ‘organised’ to me? Moving forward … is redundant as time generally does. And finally, the most useless nonsense word of all – strategic communications (Hopefully that’s implied, given we are communication professionals!)”. Libby Wyman, consultant at agency Forster Communications
Content. "I explained at a recent PRmoment event that I wanted to ban the word 'content'. This may seem extreme, but the word has become so over used it has lost it's meaning. Add some context, be specific. If you are working on a video to support your campaign, or you have created an infographic to complement a story, then say so. Content isn't king, strategy and tactics rule all." Claire Foster, PR manager at insurance company Direct Line
Reaching out, deliverables, learnings and sharing. “People seem to spend a lot of time ‘reaching out’ which suggests they’re either about to spill all their darkest secrets or break into a rendition of Depeche Mode. We talk a lot about ‘deliverables’, but rarely with reference to letters or parcels. There is now a brand new word ‘learnings’ which is used constantly and seems to have replaced the perfectly-good but apparently old-fashioned ‘lessons’. And I’m frequently thanked for ‘sharing’ when all I did was send a relatively bland email. I’ve nothing against sharing in principle, just maybe save your thanks for when someone gives you half their sandwich next time.” Peter Rogers, senior account manager at PR firm Weber Shandwick
Revert, take it offline, alignment, holistic view. “Jargon hasn’t changed that much – people are still saying they’ll ‘touch base’ with me, which makes me shudder every time. But a few things have cropped up recently that are really getting my goat. I’ll revert back to you: No, you won’t. You’ll get back to me. Reverting means returning to the previous version. Why would you do that? The first one was crap, that’s why I asked for changes.
“Take it offline: always said in a face-to-face meeting where you are already offline. If someone is hogging the meeting, just say ‘we’ll talk about this later; for now, let’s move on’. Job done.
Moving forwards: why do we say this when we really mean ‘next time’?
“We should align on that/ let’s get alignment on these issues: This always seems to be a casual request for a meeting where you’ll end up with the other person’s work as well, in the name of ‘alignment’.
“Take a holistic view: oh God! This has replaced ‘seeing the big picture’. Both are appalling.
We’ll socialise that: what’s wrong with sharing? When did we need to socialise documents like they are recalcitrant toddlers?” Lizzie Barrett, associate director at agency Ogilvy Public Relations
Low-hanging fruit, end-user and phablet. “Low-hanging fruit’ is a serious contender for the most unfortunate phrase … not only is it PR jargon that sounds rather suspicious, but it also undermines the work that still goes into seeing through those opportunities. Why tell a client that something’s easy anyway? It might seem easy to us, but for a client to secure the opportunity it would likely be a lot tougher so we shouldn’t play down our PR skills! ‘End-user’ is another wanky PR term that both clients and PRs love to stick in press releases to make them sound more professional and more B2B. Just stick with ‘customers’ and stop trying to sound smarter than you are. And there is ‘Phablet’ – Is it a phone? It is a tablet? Who the hell cares?! Now I’m all about melding words, but this is one that just doesn’t sit right.” Amy Stevens, senior PR manager at agency Six Degrees PR
Disruptive technology, turnkey solution and countervailing. “Our industry, like many others, suffers from a plethora of jargon. I am certain ‘disruptive technology’ and the frankly ever so tired ‘turnkey solution’ grate as much for many as they do for me. However the one that is really irking me at the moment is ‘countervailing’. Why not just say ‘counteract’ or ‘offset’ and not sound so up yourself?” Chris Klopper, CEO of agency Mulberry Marketing Communications
Why jargon makes my heart sink by David Gallagher, senior partner at PR firm Ketchum
We’re all guilty of using a little jargon (especially those of us of the American persuasion), and I think it’s just about acceptable – sometimes. Like the odd cuss, when used sparingly business jargon can add emphasis and even present vivid visual metaphors.
Plus some things have a different meaning in PR anyway. For example, briefs stop being underwear and become a set of instructions, pitching goes from ball-throwing to selling your ideas, and seminars are no longer learning opportunities so much as free lunches.
But it does make my heart sink when jargon is over-used, because it de-humanises the people we work with, confuses what we do, and worms its way into our daily home-life conversations. And some phrases are just cringeworthy.
Fast Company came up with a brilliant example of the latter when it asked its readers to vote for the worst business jargon of all time. “Opening The Kimono” came top. Apparently it means revealing your information – but it’s just wrong. And now you cannot get that image out of your head. Too vivid.
Whilst most people wouldn’t consider using this phrase, I bet most of us say things like “square the circle“, “connect“, and “touch-base” occasionally. Even though it rankles with people. You probably even say “bottom-up” sometimes if only to amuse yourself.
But it isn’t entirely funny. After an email went around the office asking for jargon word suggestions a flood of replies came back – and it was clear people feel genuinely annoyed. I’ve little doubt that’s because jargon words are void of the basic humanity we all expect at work.
Imagine for a moment how cross your partner might become if you asked them whether they had the bandwidth to deliver a more impactful night out? My guess is you’d find yourself on a burning platform pretty quickly.
Ultimately one has to question why we think some things are okay to say at work but not at home. So let’s incubate that idea and get our ducks in a row on this one.