Jargon is the death knell of business planning

Allow me this one small dalliance into negativity. It won’t take long, and it’s about jargon. In this case, it’s specifically about business/financial jargon, but every group has its own set of nonsensical words that may have a specific meaning in their particular setting, but which become ridiculous outside of that setting.

article-new_ehow_images_a06_fd_1i_difference-paperback-mass-market-paperback-800x800Jargon is basically a set of words that nobody understands except the group that uses them, and there is a connotation here that the group that uses them is a smaller group. And when I say ‘nobody understands’, I mean jargon is difficult to understand. There’s a reason groups use jargon. F’rinstance, in the tech world and in medical settings, these words might be incredibly specific. A “JP tube”, f’rinstance, is a very specific piece of equipment that’s used to drain fluid following surgeries. Academia is FULL of jargon that has little or no relevance outside the walls of the “ivory tower”. There’s all KINDS of jargon in the publishing world – you’ll hear things like ‘recto’ and ‘verso’ and ‘folio’ and ‘trim size’ and ‘bleed’ and ‘hash marks’ and ‘braces’ and ‘stet’ and ‘EAN’ and your eyes will glaze over and you’ll just fall over dead.

THUD, your body will say, and publishing will have claimed another hapless victim. Let us all have a moment of silence for that guy.

There are reasons why we have jargon, and usually it’s because in the field to which the jargon pertains, those words have very specific meaning, and the people in those industries have an instant understanding of what you mean when you say “ALOC” or “M&M” (it’s sadly not a delicious candy when you hear it in hospital) or “dynamic tessellation” or “VBR”. The PROBLEM with jargon is that when you bring it outside your particular arena, you get fatalities like that one that just happened with the guy who died from publishing terms.

*shoves body under a stack of galley proofs*

*sticks thumbs in braces and leans back* Now I’ve been through a fair number of planning…okay wait, this bit is only going to make sense if you picture me in one of those hideously starched business suits with a white collar and cuffs and, like, stripes or whatever on the actual shirtwaist, and suspenders (which I call braces because of my granddad) and, like, dress pants and stuff…a fair number of planning sessions in my day, and I’ve run across something that disturbs me. It’s the tendency of companies to use horrible jargon in their planning processes. There is a reason financial/business consultants use jargon, and near as I can figure, it’s so that they don’t actually have to say anything accurate.

It’s like they KNOW they’re on the rung above “psychics and charlatans” and so the language they use has to be purposefully vague and noncommittal so that no matter what happens in the future, you can look back on it and say, well, I guess those consultants were right. I think. Maybe. What the hell does this even mean?

I am a HUGE fan of clear, concise, accurate language when you’re dealing with people’s money. I work for a non-profit, and we are stewards of public investment. So when someone asks me what we’re doing with government money, I want to be as accurate as humanly possible so that they are left with no questions about how their money is being spent. I do not want a consultant to tell me that the purpose of their study (being paid for with public money) is to embiggulate the prescriptive dataset of market-ready intelligence intended to stretch the market and produce commercially viable, trackable products for the international trade sector. I don’t want that. I want them to tell me that the purpose of their study (being paid for with public money) is to learn the best way we can help increase sales.

If you need to use jargon in your business dealings with other business people or other consultants, please do so! Use the word “co-partnerships” all you want. What the HELL does that word mean? Doesn’t “partnership” already contain all the things you need to have a partnership? Seriously. Talk about “avenues of appreciation” (yes, I picture a street lined with people all chanting ‘go you!’. Regina City Council, I demand a street called “Appreciation Avenue”). What in the blazing blue fuck is a “brand presence opportunity”? I think that means shelf space for products in shops, but I actually haven’t got a clue.

If this is a document that someone other than the business community is going to need to look at and a) understand; b) DO something with; and c) report on later, you kind of have to make the language comprehensible. If you say that you want me to “increase appreciation” of something, then you can’t come back to me and tell me that the way I report on that “increased appreciation”, by including the five letters that say ‘thank you’ in my report, is insufficient. A planning document is supposed to do a couple of things: 1) Identify stuff (and make sure stuff is easy to understand); 2) Identify goals (and make sure they’re actually feasible goals, based on the stuff you identified); and 3) Provide suggested actions that your clients can take to achieve the goals you identified based on the stuff you found out.

I mean, that is a basic planning document right there. If your client can’t figure out what the stuff is you’ve identified because your mouth is full of jargon, you’re going to have to spit that jargon out and use regular marbles like everyone else.

This is a huge problem, because governments in particular shell out all KINDS of money for consultants to come in and study things and then provide recommendations to the government for how to do things or achieve things. I’ve been involved in some of these processes. Time and time again, I have asked for people to use plain, concise language in these documents. Time and time again, the consultants produce a report full of drivel and nonsense words that ends up in the bottom of someone’s filing cabinet because nobody really understands what “explore global market readiness” really means. NOT EVEN THE POLITICIANS. Hell. ESPECIALLY the politicians.

And if the politicians don’t grok it, how the hell can they explain to the people to whom they are beholden to be stewards of public monies, what they’re spending public monies ON? They can’t.

I’ve been chastised for being the person who sits in meetings and says “I don’t think that phrase says what you intend it to say”. I’ve been told “we don’t want an editor, ha-ha”. And that’s fine. I’m not asking you to pay me the $80/hour you’d be paying me if I were your editor. Or even the discounted friends-and-families/small press rate of $40/hour. I’m not copyediting your document, and if I were, we would have some SERIOUS discussions about comma use. I’m not proofreading it either (and if I were, we’d have a sit-down about how you really shouldn’t send out a document with someone else’s information in it. Using a boilerplate document is fine but have some self-respect and proofread it before you send it out, please – note: this has happened in probably 4 out of the last 5 times I have worked with a consultant on planning documents for the boards on which I sit, and the work I do for pay). If I’m sitting there saying “what does global marketplace readiness mean?”, what I’m asking you is what does that phrase actually mean. Especially if you’re recommending that the board assess global marketplace readiness.

I THINK it means decide whether you’re able to sell your stuff into the US (neither ‘global’ nor even ‘foreign’, btw). But I don’t know. Maybe you’re asking me to figure out whether our association is ready to do business in China. If that’s the case, I can answer you right now.

Writing business plans and planning documents should not be akin to writing the Great Canadian Novel. Which is to say, business plans and documents should not be boring, dry, and inaccessible to people who don’t have PhDs in literature. (Sorry, Great Canadian Novel; you and I have very different ideas about what makes for good reading.) You have a duty to your clients to provide them with clear, understandable business plans in clear, precise language. Your job is to help the business clients you have do things better and more efficiently. Having to hire consultants every two years because you never really understood the first strategic plan is not efficient.


cenobyte is a writer, editor, blogger, and super genius from Saskatchewan, Canada.


  1. You’re trying to take away the ONLY fun they have.

    Problem is, they don’t even realize they’re doing it (or if they do, shame on them).

    It would sure make the files smaller if everyone said what they meant, quickly and cleanly and in Standard English with Standard Grammar and Punctuation.

    Heavens, though – we might understand them.

    BTW, congratulations on your new leader – I had to say that to SOMEONE Canadian for the world to be right. May he keep his promises. I KNOW it can be done – there is so much waste and deception in government, it would be a pleasure. And they wouldn’t have to raise taxes – such a huge amount of money goes down the drain and/or into private pockets.

  2. Don’t confuse jargon, which, as you point out, is a sub-language meant to enhance precision within a specialised field, with buzz-speak, which is fad driven gobbledygook that shows you have no specialised knowledge but are at least trying to keep up with fashion.

    BTW, why did you elect Justin instead of Gary? Now the only jokes will be on you.

i make squee noises when you tell me stuff.

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