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Free Thinking: In Praise of Jargon


Despite its bad press, could management-speak actually turn out to be a good thing? Martin Shovel comes out in defence of the apparently indefensible.

Management jargon, management-speak, workplace gobbledygook; whatever you call it, according to a recent YouGov survey, it is choking the life out of meaningful communication in the workplace. Senior managers think it is harmless enough but most employees want to see the back of it because they feel it creates barriers and misunderstandings at work.

But what exactly are they objecting to? Management jargon ranges from abstract words and phrases to playful, pictorial metaphors. At the abstract end of the spectrum we find terms like ‘lean processing’, which give away few clues as to what they mean. Nowadays, we’re all fairly familiar with the idea of a ‘paradigm shift’ but a first encounter with it would have been totally bamboozling to someone unaware of its origins in the philosophy of science. But things get even worse because these abstract words and phrases generally commit a further abomination: they act as euphemisms. Employees are ‘de-hired’ and workforces ‘downsized’ rather than sacked; facts are ‘spun’ rather than distorted, and so on.

The bad stuff
It seems to me that abstract terms like these represent all that is irredeemably bad about jargon. Unlike technical language, they lack precision because they are often arbitrary and random in origin. What’s worse, because they are incomprehensible to the uninitiated, they make people feel excluded and inadequate. All this contributes to a climate of mistrust and confusion in the workplace.

The odd thing is, in the reports about the recent YouGov survey, abstract jargon hardly gets a mention. Instead, the finger of blame points towards the opposite end of the spectrum – the concrete end – where we find image-rich words and phrases. This is the place where metaphors congregate, and they are generally recognised as indispensable tools for effective communication.

The power of metaphors
If you need persuading, think how Churchill's brilliant metaphor of the ‘iron curtain’ changed the way his generation, and subsequent generations, perceived the Soviet Bloc. A metaphor like this expands the boundaries of everyday language and is creative in the sense that it makes us see a familiar reality in an entirely different way. What is more, as well as delivering information to our intellect it also stimulates our various senses, making the whole experience more memorable and persuasive. The ‘iron curtain’ is concrete because it makes us feel as well as think.

So if metaphor offers such a great opportunity for enhancing workplace language, what is going wrong with serial offenders like ‘think outside the box’, ‘push the envelope’ and ‘shoot the puppy’? A healthy metaphor, like the ‘iron curtain’, conjures up a mental image that illuminates and enriches meaning. In the words of George Orwell: “The essential value of a metaphor that works is the link it forges between the image it creates and the experience or thought it encapsulates.”

When metaphors run out of steam
But if the picture a metaphor creates is ambiguous, or bears no relation to the meaning of its words, it is definitely not working. For example, take ‘push the envelope’. I asked two friends what they thought it meant and got two very different answers. One gave the correct definition – ‘improve performance by moving beyond current limitations’ – but the other thought it meant some kind of bribe.

When I asked them how their image related to their definition, the friend who'd given the correct one struggled to connect her image (a man pushing out from the inside of a giant envelope) with the meaning. Interestingly, the other friend had no such problem because his image of a man pushing an envelope full of money fitted perfectly with his mistaken explanation.

In fact, the expression ‘push the envelope’ originated in the US Air Force test pilot programme of the late 1940s. It refers to the technical limits (envelope) of a high-performance aircraft. A graph measuring the performance of such an aircraft would appear as a steadily rising slope that would then fall off rapidly as the aircraft exceeded its capability. What might have started life as a visual metaphor for a small group of professional specialists (the graph) has very definitely never been a visual metaphor for the rest of us. In truth, ‘push the envelope’ is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing: an abstract jargon phrase disguised as a concrete metaphor. It’s visual quality is based on a misunderstanding of the technical term, envelope. The lesson is clear: take special care when importing jargon from specialist fields into the workplace.

What about a metaphor like ‘think outside the box’? The reference is to a well-known puzzle in which someone is challenged to connect nine dots, arranged in a square grid, using four straight lines that must be drawn without the pen leaving paper. The only way of solving the problem is to draw some of the lines outside the border of the grid (or box). For years, management consultants and trainers have used it as a somewhat flip demonstration of the need to question our assumptions in order to think more creatively.

I suspect that many of us are unaware of the origins of ‘think outside the box’ but this has not stopped the metaphor working. Each person's image of the box will be different but the general sense of the image is clearly related to the meaning of the words. So what is wrong with this metaphor? Well, like a lot of metaphors it is exhausted from overuse. Nowadays, it is so familiar and hackneyed that I'm certain very few people see anything much when they hear it. Metaphors are like vegetables, for best results it's important to keep them fresh and grow your own wherever possible. For all its many faults, ‘think outside the box’ still has a lot more going for it than the abstract entreaty to 'think creatively'.

The way forward
Finally, let’s look at a relatively new coinage that is novel enough to demonstrate the rich qualities of a metaphor that still has something to offer. The term ‘data rape’ refers to how easily our privacy and security can nowadays be invaded by people gaining access to our personal information without our knowledge or permission. The allusion to date rape is shocking and distasteful but it vividly captures the sense of personal violation we feel at the thought of strangers plundering our personal records and taking advantage of us, particularly when we’re not conscious of it. It makes a serious point but like many of the best metaphors, the wit of the ‘data rape’ pun is dark, but clever too.

So next time a colleague uses a metaphor that doesn’t produce a clear picture in your mind's eye or that you just don't get, challenge it! (You never know, you might find that they don’t know what they mean by it, either.) And look out for fresh, new metaphors that really help get your message across; don’t overuse them though or they’ll quickly lose their energy and power. Most importantly, let’s make an effort to create work environments that encourage people to come up with their own metaphors – it's a great way to improve communication, develop creativity, bring people closer together in the workplace and have some fun.

* Martin Shovel is co-director of CreativityWorks, a learning consultancy that transforms people into more effective thinkers and communicators by developing their visual thinking abilities. Find out more by visiting

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