Monday, December 7, 2009

Fighting Idiotspeak

I just finished a long overdue re-reading of Why Business People Speak Like Idiots(1).  I hate jargon, yet find that it has a way of creeping into my writing and speech.  I find that a periodic re-reading of this book acts like an inoculation against idiotspeak.  Lately, I've spent a lot time with cloud computing people where jargon, acronyms, and superlatives buzz through the air like flies around a carcass.  The other day, I realized that I actually used the word "ecosystem" in one of my blog posts which had nothing to do with ecology. Shudder.

Not all jargon is bad.  In fact, technical jargon can serve as an effective shorthand for complex concepts and actually improve communication between experts (2). What distinguishes technical jargon from idiotspeak is that the former can be tied to a precise definition appropriate to a specific setting.  For example, the word paradigm might be technical jargon when used by epistemologists discussing modes of thought.  It becomes idiotspeak when used in advertising copy as a synonym for "new and different."

Idiotspeak, on the other hand, avoids precision.  The best is made up of vague nuances enabling repurposing of the terminology into unaffiliated contextual situations hallmarked by erudite sounding phraseology.  Acronyms are another form of idiotspeak ("ispeak").  Other forms include the high-novelty-concocted-superlative-laden ("HNCSL") compound words.

Idiotspeak is the enemy of startups where clarity is most needed.  Why?
  • Clarity enables vision- In the beginning there is a vision which must be communicated to employees, customers, and partners for the startup to succeed.  But for some reason, idiotspeak is often thought to be more motivating, at least to the speaker.  I mean, I know I'd much rather be told that "we need to think outside the box to ensure we hit our Lighthouse's deployment window, or else we won't get buy in from our VCs on the bridge," than be told that "we need to figure out how to ship the product to Cisco on time, or else the VCs won't give us more money."  Not.
  • Clarity stands out- One of the goals of any marketing campaign is to stand out.  That's tough to do when we're all striving to be "the leading provider of infrastructure virtualization software for large datacenters, today [announcing] an integration partnership to enable policy driven automation of server repurposing in the datacenter" (real example I kid you not).
  • Clarity forces people to take a stand - Which is more likely to change an employee's behavior?  Telling said employee that "Your effectiveness would be accentuated if you were more cognizant of the potential negative ramifications of the use of certain colorful phrases in your speech" or "Stop swearing!  You're offending people so that they don't want to work with you and then we'll have to fire you!"  Now saying this might invoke some of those colorful phrases,  but there's no doubt about your point (which will be a point in your favor during a wrongful termination lawsuit).
  • Clarity exposes posers - In my experience, real experts don't hide behind jargon;  true experts can make difficult concepts understandable.  And if they can't explain it in simple terms, you might want to reassess their level of expertise.
I'll do my best to avoid using idiotspeak and to define my technical jargon, especially terms that have been widely misused (e.g. paradigm, positioning).  But idiotspeak is insidious.  Please help me keep this blog jargon free; call me out when you find me using it.


(1)  Fugere, Brian, Why Business People Speak Like Idiots, New York: Free Press, 2005.
(2)  Cockburn, Alistair, Agile Software Development, Addison-Wesley, 2001.

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