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Let's be clear: Why plain English is the way forward 08 June 2016

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It’s a familiar story. You go into a shop for advice on the latest phones, tablets or smartwatches, only for the assistant to stifle you with gobbledegook. How many times has that happened to you? It doesn’t fill you with confidence, does it? In fact, it can be quite disheartening. I was recently left feeling puzzled by two clangers in the space of five minutes when chatting with my broadband engineer. “Next generation core supporting full MPLS” and “high packet throughput” are very important, he told me. Not having a clue what he was on about, I laughed nervously, mumbled “definitely” and offered him another brew.

 We can’t blame technology

It’s not just the techies that use confusing language, though. We find it in every aspect of our lives. From management speak to Brexit buzzwords, a quick scan through Google would suggest we’re surrounded by jargon — but most of us just want things in plain English. So why am I telling you? Because this ever-growing concern for clarity extends to the relationships businesses have with their customers. And a lack of clarity could be harming these relationships. Plus, if jargon is everywhere, then one area where it’s particularly prominent is in the commercial property industry.

A difficult search 

We are a property firm and I chat with many of our customers every day. Most of them are not property experts themselves. They have to juggle the demands of running their own businesses with the separate challenges posed by the need to find an office. And this is all before they’ve wrapped their heads around the industry terminology. As part of an effort to improve the way we do business, we recently spoke with a number of our customers. One thing they made clear was just how perplexing the search for an office can be. This made me think. Are we making it more difficult by blinding them with property jargon?

The main offenders

A quick online search for office space throws up a whole range of bemusing property terms. To illustrate this, I’ve chosen 12 of my "favourites":

1. CAT A/CAT B fit-out

2. Conventional

3. Elevations

4. Break clause

5. Capex

6. Minimum uplift rents

7. Forfeiture

8. Chilled beams

9. Heads of terms

10. Dry risers

11. Dilapidations

12. Aspects

My guess is you’d need to be a qualified surveyor to know the meaning of all these phrases. Too often, the property industry falls back on this kind of technobabble in brochures, on websites and in other advertising media. But isn’t the task of finding an office hard enough without having to wade through this language? I think it is, so why are we using it?

Specialised language vs jargon

The fact is jargon mostly exists because it is ingrained through repeated use. And this is no bad thing. Specialised language has the benefit of allowing swift communication between employees ‘behind the scenes’. This establishes a shared vocabulary which can help to cement a culture, as Micah Solomon has previously suggested.

But if the driving force behind subject-specific language is its usefulness behind the scenes, wouldn’t it be wiser to avoid it when speaking to customers? I suppose it all depends on why we’re using it.

In J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says: “All you have to do is say something nobody understands and they’ll do practically anything you want them to.”

Admittedly, some unscrupulous salespeople will use language in this way — to baffle you into buying. This is the root of the mistrust surrounding jargon. One group of people understands the terminology; the other is forever reaching for a dictionary. And if you don’t know what someone is saying, you can’t tell if they’re being truthful or not. When the language being used creates an ‘in crowd’ and an ‘out crowd’, that’s where the problems really begin.

If we’re using the language of our profession in this way, we’re taking that language into jargon territory and we could put our customers off.

Yet, if we’re simply using specialised language to aid smooth running and to create communities within our businesses, this could be a good thing…

People want clarity. Sure, many businesses like to innovate, but it only works if your customers understand where you’re coming from. And I think all of us, business-ownersor not, would benefit from a bit more plain English in our conversations. So let’s start today: cut the jargon and just say what you mean. How hard can it be?

Let us know about your experiences with confusing jargon or even times you've had to stop yourself from using it in the comment section. 


Bruntwood talking to customers
Bruntwood talking to customers