Improve Your Leadership by Slashing Your Vocabulary

By Kate Sullivan

Updated Over a Week Ago

Minute Read

Let’s get focused on optimizing our lead-from-the-front strategy and implementing actionable insights to move our needle for month-over-month growth and enhanced buy-in.

At the end of the day, it’s all about meeting our KPIs, executing a targeted pivot, bootstrapping internal success, and crushing our core competencies. A deep dive into our best practices is just what we need to empower our partners to leverage synergies and push the envelope for success.


That was exhausting.

It was also utterly and completely meaningless.

And yet it was probably all too familiar from any number of meetings, “all hands,” “standups,” and “walk and talks” you’ve had recently. Jargon haunts us no matter what industry we’re in and relying on it as a communication crutch is a fantastic way to ruin your ability to lead.

What Is Jargon?

Quite simply, jargon is the collection of specialized technical terms that coalesce around any industry. Concepts like “KPIs” and “metrics” start out as useful, specific terms of art that relate to an idea needed in a given field, like marketing or analytics. In those terms, jargon is actually useful—it communicates a key concept and helps build a shared language that people in a field can use to discuss that field.

Jargon becomes a problem when it loses that integral, specific meaning, often because it’s become trendy and has leaked over into other fields.

For instance, do you really know what’s meant when someone mentioned “Big Data,” and is that concept really applicable to your area?

Catchphrases are another danger zone that can be confused with jargon (and here, we’ll be using “jargon” to refer to both). “In the weeds” or “open the kimono” are slang terms that can be useful once in a while to add color to a conversation or to act as shorthand for a bigger concept, like falling behind on work objectives or failing to fully disclose material considerations.

But just as quickly, they can become meaningless filler that adds nothing of value to your communication with your team.

Why It Damages Your Leadership

No one wants to sound like the pointy-haired boss who has no clue what’s going on in the department. As skilled leaders, we pride ourselves on knowing our teams and their roles and on being experts in our specialties.

Yet we sabotage our own authority when we rely on jargon to communicate.

Clear communication has always been important in every aspect of life, particularly in business. After all, how can you expect your team to know what you want if you can’t get your point across without falling back on meaningless phrases like “vaporware” or “pivot”?

Authenticity and Transparency

Today, though, it’s even more critical to be able to express yourself clearly as a leader. That’s because the newest watchwords, “authenticity” and “transparency,” are actually valuable and meaningful to both your business and your employees.

Just think about the business consequences of an apparent lack of authenticity—the appearance that you’re faking it just for economic gain. Any number of tone-deaf commercials have aired that are promptly met by social media outrage and calls to boycott the company in question, and too many company screw-ups are followed by vague, jargon-laden “apologies” that never actually state anything of value, often making the situation worse.

And small wonder: a study by New York University has shown that using unclear language and jargon makes the speaker seem untrustworthy—not a good quality in a leader, and especially damaging in the age of authenticity.

Transparency, meanwhile, focuses on providing insights into a company’s operating policies and procedures, allowing both employees and customers to see what’s really going on and making informed decisions about how to engage.

A lack of transparency—a company or leader’s unwillingness to share thought processes and chains of reasoning—can be interpreted as having something to hide or not caring about the human elements of their business.

Clearly, failing to live up to the standards of authenticity and transparency have real consequences for businesses. The same goes for leaders: today’s employees are looking for a sense that they’re contributing to something greater, but they also want to feel like they’re making a difference every day through what they do.

Millennials want to feel as though the work they do for you each day matters, both to the company and the world. A survey by PwC found that 86% of millennials would leave a company if it found its values to be lacking.

Moreover, that same survey indicates that younger employees are overwhelmingly willing to leave a company if a better opportunity comes along, but they’re surprisingly loyal if offered opportunities for growth and development that aligns with their need to make an impact and feel valued.

So how does jargon tie into that? Peppering your speech with jargon isn’t motivating or inspiring. It doesn’t make you sound like an expert. In fact, you sound out of touch and like you’re parroting business journals instead of leading with clarity and conviction.

Relying too much on jargon is like any other crutch: it makes you seem less independent and authoritative.

Worse, it creates frustration and confusion among your team. It’s nearly impossible to lead well when you’re focused on appearances instead of results, and that’s what jargon does. It’s a way to sound good without doing good.

Instead of taking the time to slow down, think through what you’re attempting to convey, and use the exact words that explain that so that your team can understand what you’re asking them to do and why.

How to Break the Jargon Habit

The first step is admitting you have a problem!

Try recording yourself in your next meeting. Just use the built-in recorder function on your phone for a subtle way of doing this. Then play back the recording that night and note down every time you use a jargon phrase like “silo,” “scale,” “leverage,” or “optimize.”

Listen to yourself during the day in your regular interactions with managers, team members, and even folks you bump into at lunch. You’d be surprised how often jargon manages to sneak into your vocabulary any time you’re talking about work-related matters.

Go through this list of your personal jargon habits and think about what you’re trying to accomplish with each term. Does it have any value at all, or is it just conversational filler, like “um” or “ah”?

Come up with replacements for the meaningless or vague catchphrases that you fall back on. It might require saying more, like replacing “What’s the value added here?” with “So how does this help our customers achieve their goals?”

The extra breaths are worth it, though: notice how much more specific that second version is and how it asks the person you’re talking with to engage in a conversation about how the project works.

That’s the other benefit of clearing the jargon out of your vocabulary: more open, useful conversations. Without the crutch of catchphrases, you can focus on what really matters and, sometimes, even unlock ideas that might have gone ignored if you just breezed in with a rattle and clank of jargon instead of engaging in true conversation.

Precision matters. Clear communication matters. Having an actual dialogue with your team matters.

Cut the jargon and watch the clarity and effectiveness of your team bloom.

How Can Leaders Improve Their Vocabulary?

If you have ideas that you feel like sharing that might be helpful to readers, share them in the comments section below. Thanks!

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Kate Sullivan on Linkedin
Kate Sullivan
Kate Sullivan
Kate Sullivan is a business sociologist, writer, and the web editor of TCK Publishing, an independent press dedicated to enhancing authors’ productivity, effectiveness, and income. TCK Publishing is leading the charge to remake the modern publishing environment by creating partnerships with writers and readers to help bring more useful books into the world.
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