It can be tempting in any new industry to create buzzworthy terms to identify and establish thought leadership. Words like “gig economy,” “ remote work,” and “open talent” sound new and exciting. But do creative new terms risk alienating key customers, talented employees and the general public? Do they do more harm than good?
Language for the future of work can seem complicated. To better understand how best to craft new terms for emerging industries, Open Assembly engaged the help of linguist Jeffrey Punske, PhD, director of undergraduate studies in Linguistics at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. We wanted to explore the challenges and opportunities around using industry jargon—and how to know if you’re using convoluted terms in your business or not.
One of his best tips that came from our conversation? Something Punske calls, The Grandma Test. (And no, that isn’t the name of a new Saturday Night Live skit.)
To avoid falling into a jargon trap so deep you don’t even realize you’re in one, Punske recommends imagining describing your work, your industry, and your business to your grandma—or someone who may be far removed from the work that you do from a technological and market perspective. “I think the easiest way [to avoid this] is to try and explain it to your grandma, to your uncle at Thanksgiving or to your mother-in-law,” says Punske, adding that it’s best if you try describing it to someone who is not connected immediately to your technical details. “That’s sort of the main goal.”
That’s not to say that industry jargon is completely useless.
Certain buzzworthy terms are often used because they capture those hard-to-describe nuances of an industry, business or team in a pithy, efficacious manner. “Jargon typically provides a very useful set of precise terms within the field that understands it,” says Punske, adding that this helps members of an industry communicate more quickly and effectively.
If your business is in a jargon-heavy industry—and you feel it helps your team iterate around common ideas successfully—experiment to be more precise about the jargon that you do use.
One way to do this, according to Punske, is to develop a set of consistent terminology within your company that everyone understands. Write it out on a list, agree upon the terminology descriptions, and place it publicly in your office (or in an easy-to-find Google Doc that all teammates have access to). Determine whether this terminology is suitable for being used both within your organization and outside your organization. If you don’t think clients, potential employees, media—and your grandma—will easily understand it, keep the terminology for internal purposes only, or change it so it’s simpler to understand.