Shibboleths, semantics and buzzwords: How to communicate more effectively in business

One of the great things about working in consulting is interacting with new companies (startups or otherwise) and tackling new problems. The first order of business when I engage with a new client is to learn their language, because every company has its own lingo that can make you feel like you just came from Mars. I believe language inside companies (and when doing business, in general) falls into four buckets that I’ll label as:

  1. Shibboleths
  2. Buzzwords
  3. Semantic mush
  4. Clearspeak

The great challenge in business is overcoming the difficulties within the first three buckets, and keeping as much communication in the last bucket as possible.

Shibboleths: What people in the club say

A shibboleth is a shared language used by a particular group, and usually only well understood within that group. Every business I have ever worked with has its own shibboleth, usually related to the way the business is structured (e.g., mysterious acronyms for business units), it’s history, internal corporate initiatives, or internal company values. These shibboleths become a shorthand, and people within a company get them, whereas others don’t. Unfortunately, they can also lead to a certain laziness, and can exclude people new to the company or third parties with whom the company interacts. This creates the possibility for misunderstanding, and even for a feeling of exclusivity, especially if shibboleths are used as code for where someone lives in the corporate hierarchy (i.e., you don’t know what this means because you don’t have access).

Buzzwords: What everyone is saying

Buzzwords are of course the terms that get thrown around in the business world, signalling the current zeitgeist, popular technologies, new management philsophies…whatever people are talking and writing about. Unfortunately, through repeated usage by anyone and everyone, a lot of buzzwords float down a death spiral into eventual meaninglessness. When people use terms to mean a lot of different things, they wind up meaning nothing, since you can never be sure what any given person means. For example, a recent Forbes article came up with a good list of current buzzwords they think startups should avoid.

Semantic mush: Words everyone thinks they understand, but don’t

A recent post by John Hagel explored the meaning of the word passion. Seems like a simple enough term, right? Everyone understands what passion is, right? Scratch beyond the surface, and you see they don’t, and many words fall into this category. This semantic mush is the most dangerous kind of language in business, because it leads to the illusion of agreement: you think you’re talking about the same thing, but you’re not.

Clearspeak: What makes sense to everyone

The holy grail of communication is to use language that is clear, shared, and unambiguous. It makes for good business and good relationships. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly hard to find this kind of language, and requires awareness and mindfulness of what people are saying and what you are saying. However, one of the beauties of language is its inherent ambiguity, so there is a constant tension between clear communication and flexibility in expression.

The path to clearer communication

If one accepts the reality that all of the types of language listed above exist in business, then effective communication comes down to three things:

  • Recognize what kinds of language are being used at any given time
  • Avoid codes, buzzwords and semantic mush as much as possible; if you have to use them, at least recognize their shortcomings
  • Actively strive for clarity and shared understanding; use tools like metaphor and visual thinking (a la Dan Roam’s Back of the Napkin series) as much as possible

What are successful strategies you’ve used for more effective communication, or other pitfalls I haven’t captured? I’d love to hear your thoughts.