I was recently at an event where the topic of discussion in my group quickly descended into the use of jargon and what I would describe as unnecessarily complex language. It reminded me of my City days and how much I loathed such behaviour, particularly when I found myself doing it!
Reflecting on this and other experiences, I believe people tend to use big words to complicate things that could be said more simply for 4 main reasons:
1) They are trying to look smart
2) They don’t really understand what they are talking about
3) They are trying to avoid key information (usually a very simple and straight forward fact or explanation)
4) They are unaware of the audience’s familiarity with the subject matter (I have more sympathy here)
So, how could we respond?
When faced with such situations I often react with a simple, “I am not following, could you please say that again in lay person’s terms?”. An alternative is to summarise what you have heard back to them in as simple language as possible until you arrive at the essence of what they are trying to say (or not say!). Grabbing a piece of paper and using pictures and simple diagrams can also work very well, particularly in meetings. Hypothetical examples is another way to bring to life more abstract concepts and ideas.
While none of this is rocket science, often what prevents us from calling out BS is our own insecurity around coming across as not knowing. If we approach these situations with a genuine curiosity about what is being said, the result is actually quite different. What tends to shine through is interest and a desire to fully engage and understand.
I recognise that some topics require the use of technical language to be properly articulated without misrepresentation. However, my experiences have taught me that such situations are rare in business and in life generally, unless we find ourselves preparing for the next moon landing!
Cutting through the BS and distilling the essence of something is not easy by any means and is certainly an art, but at least we have to try. The first step here, as with many other things, is being aware of this behaviour in both ourselves and others.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” – William of Ockham