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Five tips: Deciphering business jargon

May 9, 2016

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business jargon
Don't let business jargon complicate your business reporting.

Sources really love their jargon—in spite of efforts among enterprising business reporters to persuade them otherwise—marketers and experts frequently refuse to speak plain English. This blog looks at some of the top jargon words I hear in the field, and a guide on deciphering them.


The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes ideation as a noun, meaning: the capacity for or the act of forming or entertaining ideas. How I’ve heard MBA and other business types use ideation, however, is interchangeably with the notion of a brainstorm session. Here’s a sample sentence: Let’s have an ideation on that problem. For me, the sentence would sound clearest if you removed the camouflaged verb ideation and simply suggested we brainstorm on (or tackle) that problem.

Two small additional notes on ideation: Psychologists use “ideation” interchangeably with the idea of “a tendency towards,” or thoughts of doing something. For example, this article references growing suicide ideation among U.S. military veterans who account for 22% of suicides nationally.

Worse related jargon words exist, such as “idea shower,” a rapid fire succession of ideas (literally showering the team with one another’s genius). Again, avoid. To best retain your reader, just say it as it is.


As an adjective, this annoying word means having a large effect. An example follows in a crime story from the Fresno Bee. Chief of Police Jerry Dyer called a gang sweep among several agencies “the largest and most impactful gang operation in this city’s history.” To retain our mobile readers, how about paraphrasing the quote to read “Sacramento’s largest gang operation to date.” This suggested edit trims from 11 to 6 words.


If your business source says their strategy is to overdrive their target, it means to over perform, or exceed whatever target leadership or the market has in place. If a source used this term in an interview, I’d ask them to rephrase. Simply ask, “what exactly does this mean? Can you repeat using plainer English?”

Corporate speak for firing

When it comes to companies laying off employees, corporate marketers use jargon in lethal ways to confuse and distract the reader. Some pretty awful examples follow:

When Sears Holdings closed down multiple stores across the country a couple of Christmases ago, the corporate messaging from the CEO described the move as “a transformation.”

The Plain Language Institute offers the following examples of other companies describing mass layoffs: career alternative enhancement program, redundancy elimination, career change opportunity, de-hiring staff and the best one: optimizing outplacement potential.

British publications and others valuing brevity would just say a company had laid off, sacked or fired its employees. Other good reporters just say the company terminated people.

Swim lane and other silly terms

Forbes has this term on its most annoying list of jargon terms. A swim lane is someone’s specific responsibility within an organization. I’ve also heard swim lane referred to as an alternative path someone takes on in order to stand out to the team, typically something using their own unique contacts or specialties. Move the needle is also on the Forbes list and is frequently used among venture capitalists. If the concept/product or venture doesn’t move the needle, it will likely underwhelm its user or audience and not make money, Forbes writes. My favorite: bleeding edge, closely related to cutting-edge but more gruesome sounding. My advice remains: avoid. Just tell me how your product/venture or service differentiates itself from its competitors using specific, clear terms and memorable examples.


  • Debbi G McCullough

    Debbi Gardiner McCullough's an executive communications coach and expert helping leaders speak and write in ways that others want to listen. Her expertise ties to clear and compelling writing (how to get there) and helping those with a clunky, inacce...

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