Plain Language: An Innovative Solution That Will Change The World

When I first started working with tech companies a few years ago, I was sitting with a founder in Toronto having a conversation about the company’s goals moving forward.

He spoke passionately for about ten minutes.

Once he finished, I asked him to tell me again…this time in English — because what I heard could have been Klingon for all I knew.

klingon

This wasn’t a new experience for me.

As a journalist for almost twenty years, my job was to take complicated issues, find a human connection in them, distill them down into something compact and deliver those stories in such a way that real people would understand and care. It can be a trying experience that requires patience and resources to translate — a luxury many journalists don’t have these days as their numbers dwindle and workloads increase.

If you’re a tech founder reading this right now, understand this matters to you and your brand. Don’t take my word for it. Watch this insightful and painfully honest video of tech reporters talking about the jargon they hear from you and what they really think of it.

In fairness, tech journalists can unknowingly become part of the problem.

They can sometimes develop a Stockholm Syndrome of sorts — and start using the very language they hate. They pay it forward in their stories, making matters worse. It should be expected that if you spend enough time around specific kinds of people, attend tech conferences and socialize with tech people that you will pick up their habits. I spent four days in Newfoundland last summer and in that short time, I start speaking with a slight accent.

Let’s be honest, it’s time to retire ‘disrupt’ — it’s lazy and isn’t even being used properly most of the time. As a general rule, I’d suggest you don’t use ‘disrupt’ for your conference anymore; don’t use it in your bio, your company website or on your resume for fear of looking superficial, creatively-deficient and outdated.

And, definitely don’t use it in your news stories anymore.

Here’s the late David Carr of the New York Times getting called out by a colleague for using tech ‘gibberish’. Carr admits to the trap that can be tech reporting and inheriting all the jargon.

This isn’t just a tech issue. Every industry has its own language and jargon.

The problem arises when leaders in those fields don’t alter the words they use when communicating to audiences and stakeholders outside their own ‘tribe’ (like journalists).

So, why do we do this? Why do we speak in incomprehensible jargon?

Well, the simplest answer is it’s the language we know.

These are words that are often quick and easy ways to describe an entire process. It’s a kind of linguistic shorthand. It’s verbal laziness. Again, this is completely alright if you’re speaking with your own people, in your own industry.

The challenge is when you start communicating externally through the media to stakeholders like potential investors, government regulators and talent recruits.

Fortune_Cover_-_Unicorn

A good example of how to communicate tech properly is Elon Musk. I spoke about him in my last blog about the art of authenticity — but I feel the need to drag him out again for this one.

Musk is a smart guy who has figured out how to communicate complicated ideas to regular people. If you want to mimic anyone, go online and watch how he speaks — often simplifying his message. As an aside, also take note of how he speaks a bit slower and pauses between thoughts — allowing his audience time to absorb and process what he’s said. This comes with confidence and is very helpful.

If you have a few minutes, here he is communicating — not feeling the need to use big words and complicated phrases to show how smart he is.

So, if you’re planning on communicating externally in any way, give some thought to how you’re going to do that. How will your words, concepts and vision be received by the listeners — the people you’re trying to influence?

Words are tools. They can be powerful. And, they can be useless. Treat words with the respect they deserve — and with the respect your product deserves. I’ve seen too many good people be misunderstood or ignored because they were too stubborn to adjust their communications style.

The fact is most people are polite and if you are communicating over their heads with words they don’t understand, they will likely just nod and smile — and you’ll never hear from them again. Remember — when you’re a corporate leader and you’re communicating in your official role, the aim is usually to persuade in some fashion. And, you can’t persuade without understanding and respecting the needs and wants of your target audience.

It’s not up to them to learn your language — it’s up to you to learn theirs.

I’ll leave you with one last funny video — this one from the cast of HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’. Here they are talking about jargon and names in the tech sector.

If you have any thoughts, stories or pet peeves, please feel free to disrupt this blog by leaving your insights in the comments section.