Not sure how to zap jargon? Use these foolproof steps

In my last blog post — the first in a two-part series on banishing corporate buzzwords from memos, emails, presentations and meetings — I acknowledged that recognizing the jargon is sometimes hard.


Why? Because we’ve heard the say-nothing shortcuts so often that our ears and eyes almost get accustomed to them.

Well, the bad news is this: fixing gunky corporate-speak is even harder than spotting it.

And that’s because it requires swapping the buzzwords for something that actually means something — something specific that matters to your customers, coworkers or boss. It means substituting the cliche for the crisp and coherent.

But don’t worry. These tips will make it much easier. Keep them handy. And when you need a jolt out of jargon-land, pull them out and follow the four steps to a better, clear, sharper way to say what you really mean.

Step one: Sleuth

The first post in this series suggested that most jargon and buzzwords could be grouped into four categories, and an accompanying infographic presented common examples within each of them:

  • Nouns as verbs (ideate, incentivize, leverage)
  • Verbs as nouns (actionable, take-away, deliverable)
  • Work that’s not done in an office (drill down, circle back, loop me in)
  • Nonsense (boil the ocean, drink from a fire hose, build the plane while flying it)

Tip: Hunting the buzzwords by category should help you spot them 

Step two: Assign

The examples of corporate speak, unfortunately, are nearly limitless. However, in most cases, it is a sloppy stand-in for either a thing or an action.

Don’t let correct usage throw you. Remember, in jargon-land, nouns can pretend to verbs, and verbs can pretend to be nouns. The result sounds weird and awful. But it happens. Let’s pause and “ideate” that point. The role of “ideate” in that sentence is an action. Of course, in the real world, idea is a noun. But it’s being twisted, here, into a bad impersonation of a verb.

Tip: When assigning a role to the jargon you want to zap, ask yourself whether it’s standing in for a thing or an action

  • “Before going into that meeting, let’s be clear about the ask.”

“The ask” is being used as a thing

  • “The next slide describes the main takeaway from this session.”

“The takeaway” is being used as a thing

  • “We’ll need to get those materials ready in time to on-board the new director of sales.”

“To on-board” is being used an action

  • “What is the project team’s first deliverable?”

“Deliverable” is being used as a thing

Buzzwords will sometimes describe things, too. Examples include “blue-sky thinking” or “out of the box idea” or “mission critical work.” Descriptions of things, for the purpose of this post, will be assigned, or grouped with, things.

Step three: Scan

Screen shot 2013-02-21 at 3.41.16 PM

Pretend you need to replace the cringe-worthy, tired expression: “low-hanging fruit,” which you spotted in a memo you were writing. That jargon is standing in for a thing. Scan the word list of things, shaded light green. You might select “simple job.”

Step four: Substitute

Now, take the words you picked when you scanned and substitute them for the jargon you want to banish. Add some detail, if needed. For example, when you substitute the dreaded fruit for “simple job,” you could also briefly describe what the job is or explain why it’s simple.

In some cases, you might be substituting more words than you are replacing. This is especially true if you’re zapping jargon from the category I’ve called Nouns as Verbs.

For example…

  • To get rid of “incentivize” you might substitute: “give rewards to staff for meeting goals”
  • To get rid of “calendarize” you could substitute: “write this confirmed date in your calendar”

Using more words is fine when they replace jargon, are simple and clear and say what you mean. The point is to end up with something better than you had before.

Why Four Steps?

I broke this process into steps so it might make more sense. It may still seem complicated, at first. But the more you practice, the easier it will get. The process should start to become almost automatic as you write. Eventually, you won’t need to remind yourself of the steps, or perhaps, even look at the word lists.

By the way, the words I gathered for these lists are obviously not the only words that can be substituted for jargon. They are versatile, though, and will provide a better option in many cases.

Good luck. And let me know how this works for you. And here and here are other posts of mine with tips on writing clearly.

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