How to (actually) use business jargon in an interview or job

You’re back! We’re glad to see you. You’ve made it to the third, and final, installment of our Business of Buzzwords series. Miss Parts 1 & 2, or need a refresh? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in this jargon deep-dive, it’s that business buzzwords 10X, disruptor, move the needle, just to name a few — are a controversial topic. On one hand, peppering your speech with these important-sounding buzzwords can be like an unofficial right of passage with peers, job interviewers, bosses, etc. But overuse bizspeak (or use incorrectly) and your colleagues and stakeholders may sense that you use technical terms as a substitute for understanding certain subject matter.

But don’t worry, this isn’t a do or don’t article. Whether or not you use technical slang in your interview or day-to-day job is up to you. There are, however, a few subtleties to when and where (and how often) to use it. So if you’re eager to jump on the buzzword-band wagon, proceed with caution and question if the net impact of your word choice really gives you a return on investment. (Oops.)

The interview

Ah, the interview. The ultimate impress-a-thon. But throw out industry-specific terms or overwrought language, and your interviewer will likely probe for follow-ups. So let this serve as a warning: Do your homework before you raise your hand.

  1. Before the interview

Do some recon. Take notice of how the company’s leaders speak in interviews or personal essays. Do they speak in technical terms? Does it feel like their use of jargon serves a purpose? In other words, try to see if chosen actionable words align with the organization’s goals, mission, or strategy.

  1. In the interview

The prospect of a formal job interview may make you feel nervous. But once you’ve conducted some background research on the company and its key players, prepare a list of descriptive and important vocabulary words so that you can elaborate on those concepts with personal details that help explain your qualifications and skills. You can usually find these “keywords” on the company’s website, in a candidate kit or job description, or online within content produced by the company. But be sure that the affirmative words and technical phrases you pick aren’t just hollow buzzwords used to impress your interviewer. Know their meaning, and, most importantly, be prepared to back up your “slanguage” with examples or data.

The job

As the saying goes, “all things in moderation.” Using too many buzzwords in work correspondence and conversation may lead to some major eye rolls, or worse, stakeholders questioning your integrity.

Correspondence and conversation

In both formal and informal settings, always aim to express ideas as straightforwardly as possible without sacrificing meaning or tone. So if you use convenient shorthand or popular buzzwords to sound proficient, keep in mind that thoughtlessly using boilerplate phrases may appear off-putting. Technical language, on the other hand, is generally encouraged to effectively communicate industry or company-specific knowledge. Use phraseology when necessary to get a point across. Otherwise, try to keep emails and communications uncomplicated and accessible.

  1. With your boss

Some people resist jargon because it comes across as dehumanizing and exclusively insider language. “But sometimes a claim that a term is jargon only means that the idea being expressed is a difficult one,” Harvard Business Review editors Julia Kirby and Diane L. Coutu say. “The word is being blamed for the difficulty of the concept.” So if your boss frequently uses terms like value proposition, CRM, and SMART goal, this may be an indicator of industry-specific language that you’re expected to know — and also use — at work.

  1. With stakeholders

Think about a time when you’ve spoken to someone who uses overly complex language to make a simple point. On the receiving end of their big words and technical slang, you probably felt disengaged, skeptical even. 

Unnecessary business-speak can lead to a similar lack of trust among customers and clients by creating a psychological barrier of comprehension. In the United States, the latest national literacy data shows that about one in five U.S. adults (21%) have low literacy skills. Unproductive communication creates problems inside an organization, and when that rhetoric creeps into exchanges with external stakeholders, you might have bigger problems on your hands.

Go easy on the alphabet soup

It’s important to differentiate business buzzwords from legitimate technical language, which has its place in writing and speech. Technical terms are valuable. But the sort of language we’re talking about — particularly annoying jargon or overly complex phrasing — can be difficult to decipher and often translates to something very simple and obvious.

“Jargon never impresses those trying to decipher it,” warns Lee Monks, a spokesman for the Plain English Campaign. But as Kirby and Coutu say, “…jargon is an aspect of language. Like many things that are unthinkingly reviled, it is often criticized because it is not understood.” Despite the view you take, buzzwords are a part of our language. And they’re here to stay.