Avoid Esoteritisms to Improve Professional Communication Skills

I’ll tell you something, readers, it’s funny.  The more successful we are in business today, the harder we are to understand.  If we don’t strengthen our professional communication skills and fast, we’ll become a society with the best communication tools the world has ever seen except no one will communicate effectively.  We begin to use esoteric, or industry specific, language when we communicate–industry jargon.  Euphemisms replace concrete concepts, and it seems that if one word is good, three or ten must be better.  Your challenge in business is to be a language self-surgeon, skillfully excising this cancerous discourse from your speech before you need chemo-therapy.

I was walking down the hall at my office the other day, and one of the secretaries (administrative assistants, if you prefer) asked me, “Hey Karl, can you look at these questions for my college assignment?  I need to interview an HR professional about MIS systems.”  Let’s call her Shirley.  Shirley needs to prepare a list of 10 questions for her college course on Human Resource (that’s where the HR comes in) management.

I looked at Shirley’s list.  I was confused.  Maybe you can help me out.  Here are a few of the questions Shirley wanted to ask:

  1. Do team members utilize Succession Plans to implement strategic MIS planning?
  2. What is the current Life Cycle of your current HR IT Configuration?
  3. What is the level of HR team acceptance of the MIS database?

Say what?  I asked Shirley what she meant by “HR IT Configuration.”  She said she didn’t know, but it was in her text book, so Human Resource types would know what it meant.  I reminded Shirley that many HR professionals used to be called Personnel employees before the politically correct paradigm shift of the eighties, and that if the interviewee didn’t get formal HR education and hadn’t read that text book, she might not know what those terms mean at all.  My suggestion was to rewrite the questions as if you were asking your mother for the information (providing Mom’s not a HR guru).  Any terms that you use which aren’t 10th grade English must be defined.

Shirley will be OK, but her case got me thinking.  I’ve read human resource-type publications, and they do sound like Shirley’s questions.  Let’s not pick on the HR field, however—all industries do it.  It seems that the talking heads who control the direction of certain vocations, the legal profession comes to mind, feel they have to invent their own language in order to take themselves seriously.  This brings to mind this week’s communication lesson number 1:  talk plain English and avoid business-ese.  I call these terms esoteritisms (my word, don’t bother looking it up).

Have you ever sat in a business meeting or seminar, for your company or industry, and been completely confused by all the 3 to 6-letter acronyms and esoteritisms spewing from the speaker’s mouth.  I have.  You feel like a schmuck!  Worse yet, you’re too embarrassed to say anything.  Surely everyone else knows what’s going on, right?  Wrong!  You’re probably in the majority.  That’s why no one at the next coffee break is talking about the last session; they’re talking about their kids’ soccer games or some other subject that everyone can understand.

No matter how advanced you think you’re getting in your field, you will always be on one of the middle rungs of the ladder of success unless you lose the esoteritisms and speak like a homo sapiens (human) was designed to.

What else do we do?  Some of us are phonetically challenged, necessitating the utilization of euphemistic terminology, irregardless (most common non-word used today) of whether our communication situation requires oral verbalization or an implement of written discourse.  In plain English, some people can’t speak properly so they talk around the issue when they speak and write.

Richard Lanham, in his 18 year old book Revising Business Prose, calls this the Official Style.  This happens more today than ever before, mostly in writing but people are getting comfortable speaking this way too.  This style is characterized by soft, inactive verbs that make it difficult to pinpoint who’s doing what and to whom.  You didn’t sell the widget; there was a selling situation in which a widget-like device was bartered for.  Prepositions like “of”, “in” and “for” run amok.  This situation has been exacerbated (made worse) by the politically correct movement, where we’ve been instructed to avoid saying anything direct less we offend one group or another.  Combine that with the gang who says “in the event of” when they mean “if” and “with regard to” when saying “about”, and Houston, we have a problem.

If you’re thinking, “Oh my God!  I’m one of those people,” listen up.  There is a cure for you, not yet FDA approved, but it’s out there.  What can you do about it?  Think of this article like an Alcoholics Anonymous testimonial.   The first step in solving your problem is to first admit that you have one.  It’s amazing how you will catch yourself utilizing—uhm…using—this type of speech to communicate.  Speak with active verbs like hit, run, and kick that give you full credit for actions rather than weak, passive phrases like, “it was written.”  No one knows who the hell wrote what.  Pay attention and you’ll be killing prepositions at an alarming rate.  You graduate when you realize that every “in order to” can lose the “in order” part and mean the same thing.

So let’s recap what we’ve covered here today:

  1. Don’t use esoteric, industry-specific language that your listener may not understand.
  2. Avoid insincere terms that talk around what you’re trying to say.
  3. Crush “The Official Style” and use 1 or 2 direct words, even if you’re tempted to use 20.

Why is this important in business?  Managers cannot afford to mis-communicate with the rank and file, or else the wrong things can happen at the wrong times in the company.  Sales people will certainly pay a price if prospects get lost in the quagmire of their presentation.  Besides, in an environment where time definitely is money, it makes good business sense to get your point across faster and with less effort, now doesn’t it?

In the event that you do not come to an agreeable position with the verbiage contained within this eclectic piece of written discourse—Oh hell, just give me a call.

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