Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jargon Monoxide (It's Polly Labarre's term - sure wish I'd thought of it.)

Bob Sutton had a post the other day about a guest appearance that Polly Labarre, co-author of Mavericks at Work, made to his Stanford Organizational Development class.  Here's Bob:

 One of the points that [Polly Labarre] made especially well was that mavericks are so effective at inspiring innovation partly because they use authentic and compelling language, not hollow business language.  She pointed out that, in too many cases, the language used by executives in one company is completely interchangeable with the language used by another; and hollow and meaningless in every place it used. The class just cracked-up when she called this "Jargon monoxide." Now that is great language!   

Jargon monoxide! Don't you wish you'd come up with that term?

Bob contributes a few terms - "value added," "competitive advantage," "distinctive competence,"  and "monetize" - and directs us to Office Life, which contains a long and wonderful dictionary of business jargon a combination of in-use words likely to be familiar to everyone, and words that appear to be new - "made-up" coinages that struck me as more witty than jargon-esque. I didn't make it through the entire alphabet, but did like "bangalored", "blamestorming," and "clocksucker" (nonproductive employee).

Commenter Ann Michael, of Manage to Change, contributed "synergy," "incentivize", and "solution based" - and suggested a look at Huh, a hilarious take-off on a marketing consulting site. I haven't done a "drill-down" yet on Huh (or on its companion tech-inspired Duh), but it also promises to be a true mother lode of marketing-speak. One word that caught my eye: eSavvy.

John Chennavasin contributed a link to a very funny BS phrase generator on Click and, voila: innovate open-source convergence; reinvent end-to-end niches.

I'm sure that we all have our favorites - and I'm so enamored of the term "Jargon Monoxide" that I'm bound to post on it again.

But, seriously, folks, fun as this all is, from a marketing perspective there's a serious point to be made here. And that's the cold hard fact that we need to avoid that interchangeable, hollow, meaningless language that extremely to use. How often do you go to a web-site to learn about their products and find yourself at a loss trying to figure out exactly what it is that those products do and who they are for?

In the tech world, business application software tends to be a pretty egregious offender. (Hardware does a better job: a router is a router. So does techie software: a compiler is a compiler.)

But because we've swallowed the Kool-Aid that business purchasers are only interested in benefits, we sometimes avoid anything that smacks at all of features - right down to even letting folks know what we have to offer.

Instead of "we sell accounting software", you find "we provide customer-centric solutions that increase employee productivity."  Instead of "HR uses our software to track employee vacations", you're told that "we provide customer-centric solutions that increase employee productivity." Instead of "our software monitors marketing messages for symptoms of jargon monoxide", you read "we provide customer-centric solutions that increase employee productivity."

What's the solution?

For starters, we can stop our over-reliance on the word solution.

What's wrong with using one of the other perfectly good s-words: software, systems, services.

Then start stripping away at all modifiers that don't really say anything. I don't know how many times I've thrown the word 'robust' in front of a product.

What exactly was I trying to say?

Sometimes I was trying to convey that this application won't fall apart if you blow on it. Sometimes I was trying to get the point across that the product was expensive. Sometimes I was using it as code for hard-to-use.

But basically, robust was pretty darn meaningless.

I may not be willing to make a pledge not to use the word again, but I will vow that I'll at least think through my motivations and intent each time I do use it. And at least admit to myself those times when all I really want is a third adjective and robust is as good as any.

As marketers, we need to hold all of our messaging up to the cold clear light of day and do some brutally honest, and - dare I say - robust thinking about it. If what we're saying about our product could be used for just about everything, it's time to get out the eraser and start sharpening the pencil. Remember, our job is to communicate, not just fill up white space.


ann michael said...

Maureen - This is so true!

Consultants fall into this trap as well.

Sometimes in an effort to be all things to all people we come up with all-encompassing words that, in the end, mean nothing.

It's ok to be something to your target group - to clearly define your expertise - and have that definition exclude you from other work that might not be right for you anyway.

I can only imagine that marketers feel the same way - all customers are good customers, but we all know that isn't true!

Mary Schmidt said...


I love it! Jargon Monoxide sums it up. Another reason that we see so much of it is that it's hard work to write well and clearly. Far easier to fall back on the solution speak hoo-ha.

I once had a client for whom I wrote a complete new set of marketing materials. He then went back in and inserted "solution" about every other word. Aarrgh and Yarrrgh. Well, it was his company but...