What Makes Good Analytics: Approachable Language vs. Jargon


What Makes Good Analytics: Approachable Language vs. Jargon

This blog series unpacks everything from best practices to best philosophies when it comes to delivering the best analytics experiences.

Acronyms and impenetrable language: we all know these tendencies aren’t helpful, so why can’t we stop acting on them?

It’s a problem for us; it’s a problem for you. No matter what industry you work in, the likelihood is high that industry-specific buzzwords and acronyms are everywhere, and chances are even higher that you use them often. In your day-to-day communication across chat and email. In your external communication across websites, apps and marketing collateral. Even in your informal conversations with colleagues, clients, partners and suppliers.

The Importance of Clear Communication

In most cases, these pervasive acronyms and hard-to-understand verbiage might even be coupled with corporate jargon or “garbage language” that somehow seems to lend legitimacy to nonwords and out-of-context metaphors in any conversation of importance. You know what I’m talking about:

  • “Hey, do you have bandwidth to sync with the CRO on Friday so we can align on Q2’s OKR?”
  • “We should circle back on that and check the RACI. Kick-off is tomorrow and I don’t want to upset the stakeholders.”
  • “We’re authentic. We’re driven. Most importantly, our approach is holistic.”

Above: Any conversation in your organisation, yesterday. Probably.

I should acknowledge at this point that, along with many of my colleagues, I’m guilty of using this kind of language every day. It’s endemic in tech companies and can actually change your patterns of speech in non-work situations, too. Asking your dad if we can “touch base” using Zoom certainly makes you re-evaluate your career choices. (This really did happen. He’s not thought the same of me since.)

So it’s a given that, for the most part, this language is unhelpful. But why do we do it? What’s led to a world where we’re intentionally making communication difficult? And how can this interfere with our analytics clarity?

Describing Complicated or Abstract Concepts Fast

This is the classic defence, and in the world of acronyms, it does have some merit. If you’re an academic writer or explaining a technical or domain-specific topic, using acronyms can make writing more efficient if you know your audience will understand them. More generally, some acronyms are so widely used, there’s rarely any need to worry about audience. An example: True acronyms are initialisms of words that are pronounced as words, like FEMA or BAFTA. For the sake of simplicity, I’m using the term to include all abbreviations, like CEO, PTO, etc. The rest that are not as easily grasped? Jargon.

However, if we step into the world of corporate nonwords like “directionalisation” (yes, really), it’s probably safe to say we’re using a complex phrase or phrase because we don’t know how else to describe a complicated or abstract concept. It’s a crutch. It’s a way to avoid the effort of clearly explaining a topic or worse: concealing the fact that we can’t.

Puffing up Our Value, or Our Perception of It

Working in tech companies, where access to services is so prolifically monetised and the “real work” to build and develop something is abstracted and invisible to consumers, our sense of self-worth can take a beating. If we have ways to talk about mundane things in ways that seem cryptic, important or intellectual to others, human nature dictates we’re going to use them. “Level-set regarding burn-down” sounds a lot more interesting than “Tell them we’ve gone over budget.” It implies that’s there something complex or impenetrable about the concept that no one else could understand; and no, you couldn’t possibly understand how complicated it is.

This very natural aspect of human behaviour also leads us to the most important reason of all.

The Overwhelming Need to Identify with Groups

It’s not a stretch to link impenetrable language back to one of our oldest and most powerful traits: the need to identify with and belong to groups. The concept of shared language, slang and idioms as means to re-enforce this sense of identity within a group is well understood (and comprehensively documented in thousands of impenetrable academic papers).

By using unique language, or language associated with a unique purpose, I identify as part of a peer group who collectively understands the language I’m using, thereby confirming my status as having some level of “inner circle” knowledge. I might talk about ETL, data lakes, RACI, level-setting and syncing, but in my peer group, we all know what I mean. We’re all experts, here, right?

This line of thinking is understandable and a natural inclination, but it’s important to remember that not everyone we speak to is an expert in our subject area. Our language should reflect an inclusive, approachable attitude, one that welcomes others in and invites them to learn and grow in their understanding just as we have. Though we might all be in different stages of our professional journeys now, we all started from the same place: the very beginning.

More About the Author

Jim Horbury

Strategy Director, UKI
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