A couple of years ago, the Money section of USA Today had an interesting article called, Do Foreign Executives Balk at Sports Jargon?
Author Del Jones began by saying, “English may be the international language of business, but foreign executives who are fluent in it find themselves at a loss unless they master conversational horsehide and the vocabulary of other US sports.” “Conversational horsehide”, by the way, is jargon for the ability to use baseball terms in conversation.
She wrote about how baseball jargon has infiltrated business conversation in the USA. As we are getting close to the baseball playoffs and World Series, I thought I’d use her article to illustrate how much we use sports jargon in the USA and how this can have a negative impact on our ability to communicate both in writing and conversation.
People who are not familiar with US sports – and that includes a lot of people born in the US – suffer from sports jargon overload. Del Jones article was very entertaining, and it had an important message for anyone who wants to become a good communicator – use jargon, especially sports jargon, as little as possible in everyday conversation and business writing.
I agree. I learned this lesson the hard way. I was conducting a workshop in Europe that I had conducted very successfully in the US. The workshop began with a baseball analogy – one has to go from first to second to third base before scoring a run. While most of the people in the European audience understood the concept and the reference, many were upset that an American would use a uniquely American example when conducting a workshop in Europe.
Paula Shannon, a Senior VP with Lionbridge, a Massachusetts-based company with 4,000 employees in 25 countries, knows what I’m talking about. She says, “The Hail Mary (American football jargon) is my favorite example of bad jargon. You can establish your American-centricity, and risk a religious offense at the same time.”
The common sense career advice here is simple. In order to become a great communicator, limit your use of jargon. Converse, write and present in easily and universally understood terms. Be precise in your use of language.
Having said that, I am going to post the baseball/business dictionary Ms. Jones included in a sidebar to her article – just because I think it’s fun…
Baseball – Business Dictionary
Manufacture a run
Baseball: Scoring without power, or even a solid hit. For example, a walk, followed by a stolen base, an error and a squeeze play. Also called small ball.
Business: Succeeding via hard work; growing sales without a blockbuster product.
Baseball: The seventh, eighth and ninth innings of a baseball game.
Business: Late stages of a project; an old product seeing sales eroding due to a competitor’s new product.
Step up to the plate
Baseball: Take your turn at bat, often in an important situation.
Business: Confront a problem, make a crucial decision, go the extra mile when it’s safer or more convenient not to.
Baseball: A rundown, catching a runner stranded between bases.
Business: Getting into trouble with little chance of escape.
Can of corn
Baseball: A fly ball that is easy to catch.
Business: A decision or action that is a no-brainer; a product that sells itself.
Ducks on the pond
Baseball: Runners on base.
Business: A situation with a good chance of success.
Baseball: A pitch that breaks before it gets to the plate.
Business: Anything unexpected.
All bases covered
Baseball: Fielders doing their job and positioned on relevant bases so the team can get an out.
Business: Being prepared for every contingency.
Baseball: When a mediocre relief pitcher is used because the outcome of the game is certain.
Business: When employees have to remain on projects after star employees have moved on to bigger and better things.
Homer, dinger, tater
Baseball: Home runs of various types.
Business: Major accomplishment.
Baseball: When a batter goes hitless.
Business: Slump with poor results.
If you’re a baseball fan, you may disagree with some of the definitions in this dictionary. And that is one of the reasons I’ve included it here – to include a graphic depiction of the problem with jargon.
I remember reading a column in an airline in flight magazine on jargon. Even though it’s been several years, I still remember this column. The author began by saying that he has a folder of memos with obtuse language that he has collected over the years. He shared one memo that a friend sent to him. I was so struck by the language that I saved it on my hard drive. The guy who wrote the memo said he was going to “map the handoffs and all processes in a combined swim lanes uber-process.” I’m pretty hip to a lot of business jargon as I see it every day. However, I must admit that “swim lanes uber-process” is a new one on me.
As I’m writing this, I’m reminded of an IBM commercial I saw a while back. A guy walks into a large, dimly lighted conference room where he sees no tables and chairs and about twenty people lying on the floor. He says, “What are you guys doing?” Someone answers, “We’re ideating.” He says, “What’s that?” Someone responds, “Coming up with new ways of doing things.” He says, “Why don’t you just call it that?”
Interestingly enough, the word ideating sounds a lot like a made-up word to me. I expected spell check to flag it. It didn’t. So I guess I am behind the times on some of my business jargon. Even so, I think saying that you’re “Coming up with new ways of doing things,” is much more clear than saying that you’re “Ideating.” But what do I know?
The common sense career success coach point here is simple. Jargon causes communication problems. Successful people follow the career advice in Success Tweet 112. “Explain jargon as you go along; or provide a glossary at the end of the document. Better yet, avoid jargon if at all possible.” Don’t assume that everybody who reads what you write will be as familiar with jargon as you. Make your writing clear, concise and readable – that means as little jargon as possible.