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Can Jargon Be a Win-Win? Business Owners and CEOs Weigh In

Jargon may make some people scratch their heads in confusion, but for others, it can be a necessity.
July 10, 2017

Jargon. Love it or hate it, every industry has developed a language all its own: onboarding, driving efficiencies, leverage, stakeholders, deliverables, actionable, amplification, value proposition, circle back, pain points.

Jargon applies to that vocabulary regularly used in one environment, but may not make sense—or feel comfortable—to an outside audience in another environment. Need to run a word through the smell test (jargon alert!) to see if it qualifies? Take something you and your co-workers constantly bandy about and use it in everyday conversation with friends or family. Did their eyebrows raise? If so, you may have just taken a deep dive (sorry, more jargon) into buzzwords.

It's not just big corporations that use jargon, either. The experiences of these business owners prove that jargon exists, no matter the industry. And, raised eyebrows aside, it can provide a quick and easy shortcut for communication.

In the branding and marketing world, jargon runs rampant, says Shabnam Azadeh, founder of the creative agency Adhesive&Co, which has offices in New York and San Francisco and helps brands establish their identity and voice, devise marketing and social media strategies and more. Azadeh ticks off the jargon—good and bad—she hears on a regular basis: herding cats, get the ball rolling, a lot on my plate, think outside the box, ducks in a row, win-win, verbiage, no-brainer, lots of moving parts, it is what it is. "I catch myself using industry jargon more often than I'd like," she says. But, she adds, it usually comes out on a conference call or with colleagues, and, despite the fact that some of the words sound very corporate, she feels jargon serves a purpose. “Sometimes the timing is just right. I find that you can say a lot in just a few words or a brief sentence," she says. “It's like summarizing everyone's thoughts for them."

Jack Weiss, president of Coco Pazzo restaurants in Chicago, says he hears—and uses—jargon frequently “on the floor.” Waiters who don’t show up are “MIA”—missing in action. Volatile individuals or situations are “toxic.” Wine that tastes phenomenal is “nectar.” An extreme restaurant emergency—such as an unprepared kitchen during a rush, or even a kitchen fire—is a “meltdown.” Clientele who hold highly regarded positions, such as the maestro with an opera company or a Nobel Prize winner from a university, are “literati.” Weiss says those terms improve communication on his team. “It really definitively describes a situation so everybody can use one word, and everybody knows exactly what it is and exactly what we need to do to navigate through it,” he says. 

Jack Weiss, president of Coco Pazzo restaurants

Carrie Kahn, founder and CEO of Complete Business Group, which helps small-business owners purchase and learn to use QuickBooks accounting solutions, says she uses jargon daily, describing the terms as a "natural and an effective way to communicate to others." Her favorite piece of jargon: "Eating your own dog food." That, she says, means her team tests software out and uses the very same products they recommend to clients. She acknowledges that the phrase has its limitations—particularly to someone who might misunderstand it. "It's effective but gross at the same time," she says. "It implies the product isn't good when in fact all I mean is we use it as well."

Cecil Booth, who, along with her sister, Rebecca Booth, MD, co-founded VENeffect, an anti-aging skincare company based in Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky, has taken to replacing overused jargon phrases with everyday phrases when she can. She says she grew tired of constantly hearing people say "sweet spot" and "going viral," so she started saying "wildly successful!" instead. “That translates in anyone's vocabulary," she says. Cecil admits that she likely uses jargon without even knowing it, and considers it an easy way to communicate with colleagues, who have no problem translating when she uses her own personal favorite: “I love the term 'white space' in terms of finding areas in business that have not been colored in," she says.

Cecil Booth, co-founder of VENeffect

Jomaree Pinkard, co-founder of Hella Cocktail Co., a business based in New York City that produces non-alcoholic mixers, syrups and bitters for cocktails, admits jargon makes him cringe, but he still uses it daily, because it’s quick to use. When asked to name a favorite jargon term, Pinkard consulted his team: “We hate them all equally, but if we had to choose a favorite, at this moment it would be ‘punt’ [to delay solving a problem or implementing a feature until later]. But you can rest assured it’ll fall into the ‘most ridiculous’ bucket shortly.” Right now, he adds, that “most ridiculous” bucket is occupied by words such as “synergy” and “touch base,” and he hopes to soon stop hearing “engage” and “organic.”  

Jomaree Pinkard, co-founder of Hella Cocktail Co.

As the owner of Prairie Path Books in Wheaton, Illinois, Sandy Koropp loves language. Still, even she finds industry terminology rolls off her tongue when talking to staff. "In the book biz there's 'frontlist' (new releases, hardcovers usually) and 'backlist' (older titles, usually paperback), and a few acronyms from our POS (point-of-sale) system," she says. She perceives jargon as a kind of secret handshake within an industry. "I think it's sort of like an inclusion thing, when you know all the new phraseology and never have a puzzle-frown face during a meeting," she says.

Sandy Koropp, owner of Prairie Path Books

For Jeff Schrimmer, president of Windy City Novelties, a party supply and novelties wholesale business in Vernon Hills, Illinois, jargon comes in handy when speaking to a client or someone else in the industry. He says the word he uses most frequently is FOB, for “freight on board.” Using jargon, he says, “cuts down on the time it takes to communicate.”

Jeff Schrimmer, president of Windy City Novelties

Sue Chen, founder and CEO of NOVA Medical Products, which is a manufacturer and distributor of medical products headquartered in Los Angeles, California, dislikes jargon that has a negative connotation. Specifically, she abhors when people use the term "bent metal" to describe assistive products, such as walkers. Instead, she says strives to use industry terms that have more of a positive spin: "I much prefer to use more consumer-friendly terms, such as 'independent living products,' 'fall prevention products and solutions,' 'home wellness and safety products,'" she says. Similarly, she frowns upon the limiting language in phrases such as "products for disabled people" and "the elderly," and says she prefers to say, "products for people with physical challenges," and "older adults."

Sue Chen, founder and CEO of NOVA Medical Products

Kristen McKiernan, president of AccuZIP, a software company based in Atascadero, California, that provides mailing solutions to businesses across the country, says her team uses its own language regularly. "For example, we say, 'Did you CASS that file?' which means, did you run it through our CASS address correction software." (CASS stands for Coding Accuracy Support System, explains McKiernan, and means that an address exists in the USPS database.)

AccuZIP sales director Rolf Gehrung says he tries to resist using jargon, but admits it’s hard. “I think we sales folks are prime offenders when it comes to jargon,” he says. “I use ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’ regularly.”

Kristen McKiernan, president of AccuZIP

McKiernan adds that her dream is that AccuZIP will one day be used throughout the industry and stand on its own. She hopes that one day people will say, 'Have you AccuZIP'd your file?' meaning, have you cleaned your file up, making sure all of the addresses are good? she says. For McKiernan's business, becoming its own jargon would be, as they say, a win-win.

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Photos from top: Eric Ryan Anderson, Lisa Lubin (2), Eric Ryan Anderson, Lisa Lubin, 10photos, Amanda Friedman, Kim Carroll