We’ve all been the new person at a company, trying to get our footing in a new role and within a new industry. It can be a lot to take in, particularly when each company has its own set of acronyms and internal jargon they frequently rely on. “Think out of the box,” “I’ll ping you,” “let’s be sure to bake that into the process,” “we should avoid any tissue rejection on this specifically,” – the list goes on! We’re all guilty of it, and we’re all likely aware of how confusing it can be for a newcomer. So why do we keep using workplace jargon?
James Sudakow, consultant, speaker, and author of Picking the Low-Hanging Fruit…And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World joins Brandon Laws in a conversation about conversation and what we can all do to clarify our communication.
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MP3 File | Run Time: 23:03
Brandon: Welcome to the HR for Small Business Podcast, this is your host, Brandon Laws. Today I have James Sudakow with me. He is the author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World. He also serves as a principal of CH Consulting Inc., a boutique management and organizational effective consulting practice. They’re located in California, I believe, right James?
James: Yeah, Southern California.
Brandon: Awesome. It’s good to have you.
James: Thanks for having me on the show!
Brandon: So this book, Picking the Low Hanging Fruit, when I read the entire book, I realized that the title itself was basically what you’re trying to get across in the book, that we’re using so much jargon in the corporate world. Why is this such a problem right now?
James: You know, it’s a great question, and clearly I’m not going to contend that it’s the biggest problem that the business world is suffering from, but it’s an interesting one, right? In part, it’s funny. You have to admit some of the ridiculous things that we say are ridiculous. But when you get down one level further, it’s actually quite interesting – there are two things that happen when we hurl around all of these ridiculous expressions. I was actually surprised by the first and had predicted the second.
The first one is, you would be amazed at how many people actually don’t know what some of these things mean, even though they’re out there all the time! I actually had people that were even at a director level who were clearly not inexperienced people in the business world, whether they were with big companies or small companies, that kind of jokingly said to me, I’m really glad that you incorporated that term or that term, because I’ve been faking it for like 10 years! I had no idea what that meant, but I’m glad I finally do.
So it’s actually pretty interesting that with a lot of these terms we just assume people know what they mean because they’re so prevalent. But people don’t! When you think about that, it does impact how effectively someone is able to do their work if they don’t totally get what’s being said to them.
I remember back in my Deloitte days, we were notorious for this stuff, of course, as all consultants are. I was kind of a new guy and I was sitting there going, Uh, do other people know what is being said? I certainly hope so, because I have really no idea what I’m supposed to be doing with this stuff. So that’s the first one.
I think the second thing is actually a bigger issue and it is definitely something that’s real, which is that there’s a credibility thing here, right? If you ever look at any of the research around influencing people, one of the biggest things they’ve found is that your influencing ability is much higher if people can establish some sort of common ground with you. It’s this concept of, do I like you? Do I feel like we have something in common?
And the words we use are actually pretty important in establishing that common ground and very few people outside of their business life use a lot of these words. So when I look at leaders hurling this stuff around, it doesn’t fit into that whole concept of authentic leadership where people really talk the same way or communicate the same way. And it actually hurts credibility. That’s the bigger thing that I’ve seen happen where people kind of laugh and joke and smirk or don’t say anything in a meeting, but as soon as the meeting is over they will say stuff like, What was that guy talking about?
Brandon: Like, what just happened?
James: Why did he use all those words? What is going on here?! And it doesn’t help your credibility as a leader. Those were the two big things that actually play out in reality from using some of these kind of funny, dumb expressions.
Brandon: I could totally see both sides where if you’re using jargon, you’re sort of part of this little community where we use these buzzwords and we’re on this together and we’re smart and we’re cool and we’re high-fiving each other. But then I see the other side of it where I notice really successful authors and speakers, the ones that are selling the most books and who people connect with – they resonate with people more because they’re using very simple language, words that we’re all using.
How do you feel like that all kind of plays out? Do you see both sides kind of like I’m suggesting?
James: Well, it’s interesting because when I was writing this book, I was of course having a good time gathering all the words and expressions that I wanted to incorporate and basically make fun of in the book, but I also talked to a lot of people. I was trying to get a sense for which ones do you hear, which ones do you use, like to your first point. Many of them said, Well, it’s interesting. There’s kind of this parochial thing. When we all are on this team and we all use these words, it’s our language and it’s kind of a parochial thing.
And they thought that was cool, to your point. So I do think there’s a part of that that’s definitely out there but what I will say is on a bigger scale, I’ve definitely heard the Why can’t we just talk like normal people all the time? You hear that very, very frequently.
A real case in point, before I started my consulting practice eight years ago, I had worked internally for a good number of years. I remember the last company I was at, it was a classic case. The chief operating officer was a very, very experienced guy. He could have thrown around all sorts of business jargon and all that, but he would literally stand up at these town hall meetings, which were cast across the globe, and he would say stuff like, You know what our job is? Our job is to make good stuff and then to sell that stuff and then to provide really good customer service to the people who buy our stuff.
He would say that and people loved the guy because they’re like, Well yeah, man. He’s not talking at a different level. This is it. This is what it comes down to. So he was adored because of the fact that he was the everyday guy, even though he was the COO of this multibillion dollar fairly big company and he’s up there talking like that.
Brandon: In the business world, why do we get wrapped up in using jargon? Are there a couple of reasons why we do this?
James: Yeah, I did some research on it. I was trying to figure it out myself because it has been annoying me for years. I was saying, What happened here? I even find myself using it as much as I’m on the frontlines of trying to get people to stop! What’s interesting is when you think about how much communication we are literally bombarded with every day in the business world – email, voicemail, PowerPoint presentations to death – you know, all of the different ways that we’re getting communicated with, it’s almost like communication overload.
What tends to happen, and I see it happening with me all the time and everybody else I talk to, is stuff starts blending together. Because there’s just so much of it! Sometimes it’s just back to back to back all day long, every week. You’re just getting inundated with stuff. So what people have tried to do, like the origin of the buzzword, if you will, is that people have tried to find ways of talking that rises above the noise so that they’re heard, so that they’re remembered.
I know I even do this. I have to admit, I’m guilty of literally making up words because when you make up a word when you’re presenting, if people are not paying attention to you, they at least perk up for a second because they’re like, I’ve never heard that word before!
So you can see where the genesis of some of this stuff comes from. It’s a way to be heard. It’s a way to say something in a different way so people don’t lump it in with the 19 other things they just heard that sound kind of the same. So in some ways you can empathize a little bit with why we do it, but it still gets a little bit ridiculous when it’s overused. I think that’s the issue that I tend to come up with is we don’t have to overuse it to the extent where it has now lost its luster.
Out of the box is a perfect example. I think when that first came out, everybody said, Oh, ok, cool. It’s a new way of thinking. Now we throw that thing around so much that it’s almost like put it back in the box and let’s go somewhere else, right?
Brandon: You started out the book with a long example about how it’s used. I want to actually kind of quote just a piece of it, it’s kind of funny.
Brandon: We need to quickly put a SWAT team together to come up with some good thought-ware and really map out a straw dog for this deliverable. I’ll stop there.
James: That’s good stuff.
Brandon: It keeps going for a paragraph! This is the reality we are in.
James: Oh yeah.
Brandon: If you’re a new employee and you’re coming into a business, let’s say a consulting business, people talk like this. I think in your book, even in the first couple of pages, you said you sought out to change this.
I want to know – well, I actually know! But tell listeners how that ended up and what kind of process you went through and if you were successful or not.
James: Well, I will give you the punch line. I’m not sure I changed anybody, but I certainly made people laugh about it a lot more. When I got promoted into a management position at Deloitte, the cool thing about that is you get an office. Number one, you move out of the cubes. Number two, what’s even better about it is you get this cool whiteboard. You’re supposed to use your whiteboard to probably map stuff out or come up with solutions to use one of the buzzwords.
I wanted to do something a little different, so I started actually writing down all of the buzzwords that I heard being thrown around my organization all the time. I basically told people, You aren’t allowed to use those words in my office as kind of a joke. It was just to be funny. I got bold enough to even tell partners they can’t use these terms in my office. I had been there long enough where I was able to get away with it.
Then I made them use air quotes if they absolutely couldn’t control themselves. It was kind of a funny environment and what I found was I didn’t stop anybody from using them! What was hilarious was when I would go out on business trips, because we were always on the client side, I would come back into my office and like new words were added. And I didn’t add them! So people were taking pride in the dumb expression that they added to my whiteboard that people weren’t allowed to use. It became this really fun game of people adding to it. So was I successful in getting anybody to do anything different? Total fail. But at the same time, people seemed at least to be a little more aware of it and have a little bit more fun with it, which is kind of a nice fringe benefit I suppose.
Brandon: So then the rest of the book basically goes into defining all of these phrases. Had you heard of all of those? Were some from the whiteboard that people were adding to?
James: Oh, a lot of them were the whiteboard, that was what was so cool about it. I had my ones that I just couldn’t stand. But everybody started to add them in there and that evolved over time. I actually added a good number more and I will tell you, people that have read the book, they say, Hey, did you think about this one? I’ve gotten lots of emails from people saying, What about these two? What about this one? So yeah, there’s more out there.
Brandon: It’s funny with the book, when you started out I thought you said you were going to change the world and the way people are using jargon. But no, you basically just gave in and you started defining all of these and I thought that was pretty funny.
James: Yeah, I tried to change it! But I thought, you know, if I can’t do that, at least I can tell people what they need and maybe make a little bit of a ridicule out of it by telling you what it sounds like literally and get a friend of mine to do some funny drawings. So that’s what ended up materializing.
Brandon: Some of my favorites, I wanted to mention, were data dump, because I hear that quite a bit. And I will ping you.
Brandon: Let’s create a parking lot. Oh, I use this one a lot – Let’s talk at a 20,000-foot level.
James: Oh, yeah.
Brandon: The one that I thought was so ridiculous, like why are we even using this, was build a straw man or a straw dog, which basically means build an outline. Why wouldn’t we just say build an outline? That is so much more simple than build a straw dog.
James: It is! I don’t even know where that came from. I’ll tell you, I put in some diligence on this one because it was so annoying to me. That one ranks in my top five, too. Where did straw man and straw dog become the place that says that’s what an outline means? I don’t even know how that happened. It’s ridiculous, right? People know what an outline is! But a straw man? And then to transfer to a straw dog? Bizarre.
Brandon: Some of them are intuitive, though. I get why – we use metaphors and we tell stories and I think people resonate with it a lot. When you use jargon, sometimes it can accomplish the same thing as a metaphor.
Brandon: So they are intuitive, but then there are ones like straw dog, which make no sense at all.
Brandon: What are some of your favorite ones, if you have favorites?
James: I’ve got the one that’s probably my most favorite to not like. I don’t know why this one drives me so nuts, but it does, and it’s when we say we’re going to bake something into the process or bake someone into the process. Again, that’s one that I can’t seem to figure out. How did we even get to that? Instead of just saying, Yeah, we’ll include that. I mean I literally remember I was on a client site years ago and the partner was a great guy actually. He was one of the most self-aware, funniest partners I ever got the luxury of working with.
But we had a client and we were talking and he said, Yeah. We will bake them into the process. And the client kind of looked at him with a little bit of a smirk and a little bit of annoyance, actually, and said, Do you mean include the guy? Everybody else started kind of laughing, saying, Yeah, what about that Mike? We’re going to bake him in.
Brandon: Oh my gosh. That is so funny, I love that. Any other favorites that you have?
James: Tissue rejection is a great one. Have you ever heard that one before?
Brandon: No. I’ve never heard it used in context.
James: So tissue rejection must be a classic consult-ism, but it was this concept of if we try to put this new thing in play, if we have this new strategy or process or whatever, and they can’t do it for whatever reason, they will reject it. Kind of like organ donors reject organs. So that’s where it came from, like, we don’t want to experience any tissue rejection on this so let’s make sure that we do it right.
Brandon: Oh, that’s a good one! Can you define the data dump one? I’ve used it and I’ve heard it quite a bit, but the way you articulated it is pretty good. And the illustration is also really funny paired with it. Maybe just define that one for me?
James: Data dump is a great one. It’s literally this concept of, there’s what it’s supposed to be and then there’s what it actually ends up being, which I think is what’s funny about it. So what it’s supposed to be is when somebody joins either the organization or they join the project or they join whatever is going on in there from the outside, this is supposed to be this thing that’s supposed to be helpful to you, which is hey, somebody who has been working on this thing for a while is going to give you lots of information that you need to get smart about what’s going on so that you can be informed and start to work on the thing.
What it usually ends up being is like complete and total information overload where someone is trying to move on as quickly as possible and they send you files and files, links to SharePoint slides, zip files, documents that may have nothing to do with what you’re doing but were somehow related to the project itself, and you just get under this pile of information.
The irony of it is when I’m a recipient of that kind of thing, I don’t even read them anymore because they’re so not useful. People just send you everything they have that’s somewhat related to what you’re supposed to do and then they run the other way! That’s what often happens.
Brandon: That’s the thing, when we’re using this jargon and then something like that happens where you think it’s something and then it becomes this negative thing, now you have a negative connotation with those words. So then, again, you want to run the other way. It’s absolutely insane.
James: Yeah, and people don’t want to be data dumped, right? That’s how this whole concept of knowledge transfer became the less harsh way of doing a data dump. But everybody knows what that is now too, it’s the same thing.
Brandon: One of my other favorites that I mentioned earlier was talking at a 20,000-foot level. I actually like that phrase because you sort of know like, hey, we’re going to talk strategically without any details. Is there a better way to really say that?
James: I actually like the way you defined it! I mean I think everybody knows what talking at a 20,000-foot level means, right? I don’t think that’s one of those things that people don’t get anymore, unfortunately or fortunately, however you want to look at it.
But I do like the notion of saying, look, what we’re trying to do is talk at a strategic level and not get mired in the details. I think that the explanation around how you described it helps people understand what the purpose of talking at a 20,000-foot level is, because we throw it around enough. But people forget that the intent is to not get mired in details at this point, right? And I think that’s worth explaining, taking that extra four seconds to add that into the conversation, because I’ve seen a lot of conversations that are initiated as talking at the 20,000-foot level that go way into the details really fast because people are not listening to language anymore.
Brandon: You convinced me! I’m with you on that one.
So if we’re using this language all the time in business, and you wrote this book defining all this stuff. If we continue to use it, do you think it just becomes part of the normal conversation and so ingrained that it becomes part of the language?
James: I think it does, for better or for worse, and I’ll give you a really good example of it. So because I have this unhealthy obsession with business buzzwords, I recently found out that six business buzzwords have literally been added to the dictionary. We’re talking Merriam Webster and the Oxford Dictionary, right? These are now official words! And they get there through usage. One of the funniest ones that was just added was this concept of abandonware. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that.
Brandon: No, not at all.
James: It’s a literal word now and essentially what it is, is technology that’s no longer supported by its creator.
Brandon: Ok, that makes sense.
James: They call it abandonware, which is funny when you combine it with all the other wares out there like thoughtware and ideaware and vaporware and shelfware. Those never got enough usage where they were put in the dictionary but abandonware certainly did. So I think you’re right, I think over time some of them actually get enough usage where they just become officially recognized words and I guess that’s ok, because I can’t stop it from happening!
Brandon: If people don’t know what jargon means, like if they’re in a meeting or they’re a new employee or something where they’re hearing these things, do they ever say, Hey, what does that word mean? Actually chime in and say, I don’t know what that means. Can you define it? Do people actually do that?
James: What’s funny about it is I’ve never seen a younger, inexperienced worker doing it because they’re not sure if they’re supposed to know what it means. What is funny, though, is I have seen more senior people do it because by that point in their career, they’re more comfortable. I saw a VP do it the other day and she’s like, I’m already a VP so I’m not concerned about whether I’m supposed to know this. So she asked! She just said, Well, I don’t know what this means.
Then it was explained to her and then she’s like, Ok, great. Maybe you could not use the acronym next time for people like me. I think there’s more confidence at certain levels to actually in a meeting say, I don’t know what that means. Tell me. I’ve never seen junior level people do it and I know I wouldn’t have because it’s kind of like that thought process in your head of, Am I going to show that I don’t know things and I’m supposed to know by doing that? We’re not confident enough to make that assertion.
Brandon: I want to encourage the listeners to go out and get this book. I’m a huge Goodreads user, the social application, and I read somebody’s comment on this book that said, Hey, I love this book and this is great for putting in the lobby when new employees or customers come in so they can just kind of pick it up and flip through it. This is something you should just have sitting around at your desk, the lobby, just for people to kind of pick up because it’s an easy read and you can just flip to chapters.
Do you see this kind of being a long term book where maybe you will add to it and have different editions?
James: Oh, yeah! It’s funny, I didn’t intend to, but because of the communications that I got about the book from people who read it, everybody was saying, Hey, did you think about this one? So I literally have a working list just based upon the feedback that I’ve gotten from others! There must be about 60 or 65 words already from people who said, You’ve got to do a volume two.
My dream is, if I can’t make it go away, at least we could build it in the new hire orientation or something. At least have it be somewhat useful, right?
Brandon: I’ve always thought that in a new hire orientation or just the onboarding process, from a communication standpoint, wouldn’t it make sense, if you’re going to be part of our culture now, to define everything that we use from acronyms to jargon to whatever?
James: That’s right. And obviously my book is intended to be a little bit tongue-in-cheek, but there’s absolutely utility for it. If you combine that with my specific business and the specific language we use here, it’s actually quite valuable. I work with a small company that was close to where I lived and where my company is based that was trying to redo its entire onboarding process. Of course we didn’t put my book in there, but what we did do was we had a whole section on, Hey, how do we talk around here? Just so that people could kind of get that and it was amazing how much appreciation new employees showed.
Brandon: For the HR people listening, they really need to grab this book, highlight what they do use and then, to your point, build it into the onboarding process and make sure to define the words that we’re using so you’re absolutely clear, there are no questions about it.
James: And then somebody new doesn’t have to fake their way through it or think they’re supposed to know it when nobody would really expect them to know that stuff.
Brandon: I want to give you the last word. Anything about your book, about what you do, links you want to give people so they can learn more about what you’re doing? I know I want to have you back on. You focus on talent management quite a bit, so we’ll have you back on for that topic. But this book is a lot of fun! Anything else you want to say about it?
James: I appreciate the time on the show and I’m glad that it was fun because it’s meant to be fun. I want it to be fun and useful.
If people are interested, you can go to my website, www.JamesSudakow.com, and that gives you information about my writings, what I do, that particular book as well as the consulting. And I do write for Inc.com, I usually do a couple of articles a week there. I talk about jargon as well there. So if anybody is interested, that’s where you can find me.
Brandon: Awesome. Well, James, thanks for being part of the podcast, this was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it.
James: Yeah, thanks for having me! It was great.