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Lose the Jargon or Lose the Audience

The most difficult part of my job as a communications coach is interpreting what many clients are trying to say. The heavy use of jargon, acronyms, and confusing language takes a toll on me -- not to mention the audiences my clients are preparing to address. Take the following example:

SOC: Speaking of Confusion

Have you ever heard of a system-on-a-chip? Probably not, unless you're a technology journalist, you work in the industry, or you're an avid reader of trade journals targeting the semiconductor industry. Still, whether you realize it or not, a system on a chip is something that touches your life every day.

One of my clients, the CEO of a company in this particular industry, was struggling to describe his business in clear, concrete, and concise language. His initial explanation failed to resonate with his audiences. So during our first coaching session, I asked him a simple question: "What do you do?"

He gave me a puzzled look. "What do you do?" I asked a second time. He answered, "Our company is a premier developer of intelligent semiconductor intellectual property solutions that dramatically accelerate complex SOC designs while minimizing risk."

CELLULAR BREAKTHROUGH. Of course, my eyes glazed over. Not only is this explanation cluttered, convoluted, and confusing, it assumes that everyone knows what SOC means! Needless to say, we had our work cut out for us. We had to work fast to prepare this CEO for a major presentation to a group of semiconductor investors and analysts.

After about 30 minutes of grilling, the exasperated CEO finally blurted out, "Look, Carmine, do you have a cell phone?" "I sure do," I answered, anticipating a major breakthrough. "Well, our technology makes cell phones that are smaller, more powerful, and last longer on a single charge," he said.

Wow, I thought. Now that makes it clear! The very next week, BusinessWeek carried an entire article on the SOC industry titled "Dawn of the Superchip." The article explained that by adding more functions on a single computer chip, companies such as my client's were creating cell phones that were cheaper, smaller, and could handle more features. Sound familiar? The message is clear, simple, and easy to understand.

21st Century Communicators

I strongly believe it's time for executives to take a new approach to communications. A 21st century communicator must stress simplicity without losing the substance of his or her message. Contemporary business owners must strive for simplicity and clarity if they hope to inspire and motivate employees, customers, or colleagues.

During an interview for my recent book, Sybase (SY) CEO John Chen told me, "The single most important success factor for anybody in a leadership position is the ability to articulate a message passionately, concisely, and clearly." Chen says a big part of his job is to give presentations that cut through the complexity of the software industry for audiences made up of investors, customers, and employees.

The world's greatest business communicators speak in clear terms that everyone understands. Whether you're talking to your boss, a prospect, or colleagues, your listeners want to easily grasp the message behind your service, product, company, or cause. They want it simple and they want it fast.

LESSONS FROM EINSTEIN. If you're thinking to yourself, "That's great, Carmine, but our product is far too complicated to talk about in simple terms," you're wrong. That attitude will destroy your ability to connect with contemporary audiences.

Albert Einstein once said nothing is so complex that it cannot be explained simply. He was right. Look, if you're truly committed to transforming your audiences with your presentations, then you have no choice but to craft your message so everyone can grasp its implications.

Most employees, customers, and investors hate confusing messages. They've been burned by dot-com marketing hype, and they're skeptical of anything they can't understand quickly and easily. They're fed up with corporate speakers who are as murky as a Louisiana swamp in August.

Make Clarity a Cornerstone of Your Success

One of the best ways to improve your communications is to avoid mind-numbing jargon, especially when delivering your message to outsiders.

"Today, people place a strong premium on clarity," Reuters (RTRSY) President Devin Wenig once told me. "I think people hide behind management jargon when they either don't understand the substance or they're not passionate about it. They use words and themes that a normal person walking down the street just wouldn't understand.

"People used a lot of jargon in the late '90s, and it resulted in a bad taste in everyone's mouth. A presentation at an IPO road show that nobody could understand would result in a stock that shot up 900%. But there was no 'there' there," Wenig said.

Jack Unleashed

Jargon-filled language is a sure way to turn off prospective customers and it could also be a career killer. Jack Welch is the one of the most admired and influential CEOs in the world. During his 20 years as GE's (GE) top executive, the conglomerate grew from $13 billion in revenue to $500 billion!

Welch was on a mission to "de-clutter" everything about the company, from its management processes to its communication. He hated long and convoluted memos, meetings, and presentations. In his book, Jack: Straight from the Gut, Welch discusses the initial meetings he had with division leaders that left him "under-whelmed." Clutter and jargon had no place in his meetings. If you wanted to upset the new CEO, just talk over his head. Welch would ask, "Let's pretend we're in high school…take me through the basics."

He recalls his first meeting with one of his insurance leaders. Welch asked some simple questions about terms he was unfamiliar with. He writes, "So I interrupted him to ask: 'What's the difference between facultative and treaty insurance?' After fumbling through a long answer for several minutes, an answer I wasn't getting, he finally blurted out in exasperation, 'How do you expect me to teach you in five minutes what it has taken me 25 years to learn!' Needless to say, he didn't last long."

Welch strove for simplicity -- as does his successor, Jeffrey Immelt, who encourages employees to simplify the company's communications. He often cites Welch as his role model. If clarity is high on the priority list for GE leaders, perhaps it should be yours as well. Keep your message clear, simple, and understandable!


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