How To Speak (and Write) Like a Human

Ben Thompson | November 3, 2017

(The first in a five-part epic)

Somewhere between all the operationalizing strategic vision to ensure optimal outcomes and streamlining operational efficiency to maximize ROI, we seem to have lost something.

Like what in the world we’re talking about.

Don’t get me wrong. Our PowerPoints sure sound fancy. And important. But the next time you find yourself reading bullets at an audience, stop and look around. Ask the guy with his face in his phone to explain what you just said. It probably won’t be pretty.

People—even really smart people—just can’t process complicated language effectively. It’s difficult to read and almost impossible to understand when you’re listening.

People who care, the ones who are really trying to understand, get confused and frustrated. The rest of us tend to shut down, and our cognitive biases—like hearing what we want to hear—start to kick in. None of this is good for communication.

Thankfully, the fix is easy: Just start talking like a human being.

How? That’s less easy. But don’t stress: learning how to speak like a human is what this series is all about.

Over the next four newsletters we’ll look at some of the habits that make us sound like operationally deficient communicators with low audience empathy, and we’ll learn how to speak (and write) like plain old people.

This issue: JARGON

Jargon can be great. For example, if you’re a radiologist trying to tell an ER doc her patient has a head injury that needs immediate surgery, you could say:

The patient has an acute subdural hematoma OR

A critically advanced localized collection of blood trapped between the dura mater and the arachnoid mater within the bony mass of the skull.

Both are accurate. The first one is a lot more efficient. For professionals in the same field, jargon is quick, precise shorthand. It is much better than a long, verbose explanation.

For those of us on the outside, who don’t know the lingo, jargon is an impenetrable wall. We have to stop the speaker and ask for explanation.

This is why doctors try to speak simply to us (when we’re patients, at least) and check to make sure we understand them.

Jargon in the wild

Jargon is very seductive. It sounds important and smart. Which is maybe why it leaks out of the places it belongs—medicine, the law, the military—and shows up in places where it doesn’t belong, like, oh… business, finance and marketing.

Operational readiness and situational awareness might (might) be meaningful when you’re a commander at NORAD, but during a sales conference at the airport Hilton?

Rogue jargon kills communication even if the speaker is using it accurately. Even worse, and more common, is when we use jargon as a crutch to disguise the fact that we don’t really know what we’re talking about.

Becoming jargon aware

It can be hard to notice when you’re using jargon, especially if you work in a jargon-filled discipline. But you can develop an ear for it. First, check out The Corporate B.S. Generator. They keep an up-to-date list of the latest corporate jargon.

Start a list

See some words on The Generator that you use a lot? Don’t be embarrassed. Write them down and start listening for them in your speech and looking for them in your writing. When you hear or see jargon in your language, stop and ask yourself what you really mean. Then try to say it as simply as you can.

Fun assignment: start a list of jargon you’d like to stop using.

Next issue: The importance of being concrete