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Too many firms use jargon to convey ideas

So you're at a party getting to know a couple of attractive strangers.

So you're at a party getting to know a couple of attractive strangers.

"What do you do?" you ask one of them innocently.

"I'm a market-leading provider of technology-enabled process-optimization tools to reduce and right-size inventory, improve forecast accuracy and service, optimize production resources, and reduce cycle time across the supply chain," your new acquaintance intones.

Whoa, time to get out of here, you think. But you recover your social graces enough to look hopefully at his friend.

"Well," the friend says, "I develop small-molecule, orally administered pharmacological chaperones for the treatment of human genetic diseases."

"How interesting," you lie, edging toward the door. "I'm sorry to run, but I just remembered I have to clean the cat boxes. Nice meeting you."

Obvious as it may be that such heinous assaults on the English language would send people at a party running, this is how real businesses introduce themselves to reporters - and anyone else who reads their news releases on their Web sites - every day.

After enduring this literary torture nearly to the breaking point, we thought it might help to share our pain, plus some thoughts from business experts - dare we say "thought leaders" - about the virtues of clear communication. After all, if potential customers cannot figure out what your company does, that might be a problem.

"Maybe it's technology. Maybe it's poor schooling, but I think we're becoming a nation of weaker, more jargonistic communicators," said Kelly O'Keefe, who is director of executive education at Virginia Commonwealth University's Brandcenter. "It's certainly not good for brands."

Maybe the people who write these descriptions are so steeped in jargon that they think we all know what managed telephony, online motion content, powerful enterprise server technology, mission-critical strategies, operational outsourcing solutions and "under-banked" consumers are.

One company "helps pharmaceutical companies create competitive advantage and shareholder value through unparalleled insights into the drivers of physician prescribing behavior." Another English abuser describes itself as "the global leader in applying Advanced Enterprise Management Systems™ to help public- and private-sector clients transform into resilient organizations that proactively mitigate strategic risk, further competitive advantage, and optimize enterprise performance."

Rich Sherman, an Austin, Texas, marketing consultant, who wrote the description for our first partygoer - Lead Time Technology of Wilmington, Del. - put a lot of thought into his wording, and was happy to defend it.

Sherman, who is on Lead Time's board, said his target readers were supply-chain managers and trade-press writers, not reporters for daily newspapers. "It is not our strategic intent for you to understand," he told an Inquirer reporter.

The description was purposely wordy, he said, to use as many key Internet search words as possible. He is phasing in some simpler language, but would never just say Lead Time is going to improve your company's efficiency.

"So what? Who isn't?" he said. "The simpler you get, the less effective you get."

Alan Siegel, who runs a branding company whose slogan is "simple is smart," thinks most Dilbert-worthy writing stems from naive attempts to impress. People, he said, "are using overblown, imprecise, confusing gobbledygook to try to sound big and important."

The problem is "worse now than it's ever been," he said.

He concedes that some tech companies are complicated, but thinks there's no excuse for using "nonsense language."

Not surprising, given his company's approach, he thinks customers prefer plain English. "It's a definite business advantage and strategic advantage to communicate with clarity and coherence . . .," he said. "All the audiences of these big companies are crying for clarity."

The Brandcenter's O'Keefe says the most successful brands are built on simple messages. Think Target and democratized style. "Most consumers crave simplicity," he said. (While Target's ads are masterly, its news-release description of itself refers to customers as guests, not the sort of simplicity we crave.)

Some of the problem may stem from confusion within companies. "A lot of corporations really don't know who they are," O'Keefe said.

Leaders of three local business schools say they're trying to create better communicators.

James M. Danko, dean of the Villanova School of Business, said his school had revamped its curriculum to include more writing and oral presentations. Temple University's Fox School of Business is adding a business communications class this fall that will focus on clear, concise business writing and speaking.

Drexel University's LeBow College of Business worked with its English department to bring more writing instruction into the business school and has started sending out examples of student work to alums in the working world for critique.

While there is a sense in the business world that obtuse language impresses people (yes, we know this is true in other fields, too), students should know that clear writing is a sign of good thinking, said Frank Linnehan, LeBow's associate dean of undergraduate and graduate studies.

"Being able to describe a complex concept clearly and succinctly is really an indication of how well you know that subject," he said.

Some of the most puffed up, buzzword-laden writing is, of course, meant to dress up unremarkable ideas. It survives because of what Linnehan calls "emperor's-new-clothes syndrome."

Davia Temin, who owns a marketing, reputation- and crisis-management firm, says turgid writing may start at the top, not with the lowly writer of a news release. Many business leaders, she said, want to include "every one of their marketing messages" in company boilerplate. "A lot of these guys, they want to throw in the kitchen sink, obfuscate with jargon," she said. "To get them off of that, it takes a major war."